The medal awarded on Friday lauded the “lifesaving bravery and devotion to duty” for work detecting land mines in Cambodia. Its recipient: a rat named Magawa.
Magawa is the first rat to receive the award — a gold medal bestowed by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, a British charity, that is often called the “animal’s George Cross” after an honor usually given to civilians that recognizes acts of bravery and heroism.
Not since the fictional Remy of the 2007 Disney-Pixar film “Ratatouille” has a rat done so much to challenge the public’s view of the animals as creatures more commonly seen scuttling through sewers and the subway: Magawa has discovered 39 land mines and 28 pieces of unexploded ordnance, and helped clear more than 1.5 million square feet of land over the past four years.
“Magawa’s work directly saves and changes the lives of men, women and children who are impacted by these land mines,” said Jan McLoughlin, the director general of the charity, which bestowed the award in an online ceremony. “Every discovery he makes reduces the risk of injury or death for local people.”
“Magawa’s dedication, skill and bravery are an extraordinary example of this and deserve the highest possible recognition,” Ms. McLoughlin said.
More than five million land mines are thought to have been laid in Cambodia during the ousting of the Khmer Rouge and internal conflicts in the 1980s and 1990s. Parts of the country are also littered with unexploded ordnance dropped in United States airstrikes during the Vietnam War, a 2019 report from the Congressional Research Service found.
Since 1979, more than 64,000 people have been injured by land mines and other explosives in Cambodia, and more than 25,000 amputees have been recorded there, according to the HALO Trust, the world’s largest humanitarian land mine clearance charity.
Larger than the average rodent, Magawa, a 5-year-old African giant pouched rat, is part of the “Hero Rat” initiative run by the Belgian nonprofit APOPO, which works across South East Asia and Africa, training rats to save lives by detecting land mines and tuberculosis.
Magawa, the most successful rat to have taken part in the program, was trained to detect TNT, the chemical compound within explosives. The ability to sniff out TNT makes him much faster than any person in searching for land mines, as he can ignore scrap metal that would usually be picked up by a metal detector.
He can search an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes, whereas a person with a metal detector would usually take four days to search an area of that size. When he finds a mine, he signals to his handler by scratching at the earth above it. Unlike humans, Magawa is too light to detonate a mine, so there is minimal risk of injury.
Rats like Magawa “significantly speed up land mine detection using their amazing sense of smell and excellent memory,” said Christophe Cox, APOPO’s chief executive. “This not only saves lives, but returns much-needed safe land back to the communities as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.”
Described by Malen, his main handler, as friendly and hard working, Magawa has a work-life balance that is likely the envy of many a human. “He is very quick and decisive,” Malen said in a statement provided by People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, “but he is also the first one to take a nap during a break.”
When he is not in the minefield, the two-foot-long rat likes snacking on bananas, peanuts and watermelons, and taking a spin on the running wheel.
“He is very special to me,” said the handler, whose last name the charity did not provide for privacy reasons and who has been working with Magawa for four years. “He has found many land mines in his career and saved many lives of the Cambodian people.”
The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals has been handing out awards for valor to animals for 77 years, and the judging is done by a panel of the charity’s directors and trustees.
Yet Magawa’s glittering career may soon come to an end, as APOPO estimates that its “Hero Rats” work in the field for four to five years, after which they are given a retirement filled with play and exercise.
For now, Emily Malcolm, a P.D.S.A. spokeswoman, said the rat might be in line for a more edible bonus.
“I hear he’s partial to bananas and peanuts,” she said, “so I’m sure he will be getting a few extra treats.”