Heroes come in all shapes and sizes — and some weigh barely more than a pineapple.
At least that’s the case for Magawa: a giant African pouched rat who has been awarded the UK’s highest possible medal for “lifesaving bravery” detecting landmines in Cambodia.
Magawa has been awarded the PDSA Gold Medal, the animal equivalent of the George Cross — the UK’s most prestigious award for bravery — for clearing 141,000 square metres of land in his distinguished career, equal to 20 football pitches, according to MailOnline.
In that time, he has uncovered 39 landmines and 28 items of unexploded ordnance. It’s estimated that there could be up to 6 million landmines still buried across Cambodia, resulting in over 64,000 casualties and 25,000 amputees since 1979.
Every hour, another person is killed by a landmine somewhere in the world. And on average, half of those killed are children.
He's been awarded a gold medal for life saving devotion to duty. He's identified and helped to clear deadly landmines in Cambodia. He's perfectly suited to the task as he's very light and very short— Nick Robinson (@bbcnickrobinson) September 25, 2020
He is Magawa - an African giant pouched rat @BBCr4todaypic.twitter.com/H1ezXAr5mX
Magawa was trained by APOPO (short for Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling — or Anti-Personnel Landmines Removal Product Development in English), a UK aid-funded Belgian charity based in Tanzania that teaches animals to detect both landmines and tuberculosis in humans.
Magawa is the first rat among the 30 animals to have earned the award. After seven years of service, he is now looking forward to a well-earned retirement.
“To receive this medal is really an honour for us. I have been working with APOPO for over 20 years,” Christophe Cox, chief executive of APOPO, told the Press Association. “Especially for our animal trainers who are waking up every day, very early, to train those animals in the morning.”
“But also it is big for the people in Cambodia, and all the people around the world who are suffering from landmines,” she added. “The PDSA Gold Medal award brings the problem of landmines to global attention.”
Magawa himself was unavailable for comment.
Rats like Magawa tend to work for 30 minutes a day, rising early in the morning. But in that time, they can clear more than the equivalent space of a tennis court. It could take a human being with a metal detector up to four days to do the same amount of work, according to APOPO.
Their lightness — Magawa weighs 1.2kg and is just 70cm long — means that the rats can scuttle right over landmines without setting them off. And while humans are slowed down by scrap metal, the rats are trained with food to smell a chemical compound in explosives without distraction, scratching the top of the landmine to alert handlers where the threat is.
“The work of Magawa and APOPO is truly unique and outstanding,” said Jan McLoughlin, PDSA director general. “Magawa's work directly saves and changes the lives of men, women, and children who are impacted by these landmines. Every discovery he makes reduces the risk of injury or death for local people.”
“The PDSA Animal Awards programme seeks to raise the status of animals in society and honour the incredible contribution they make to our lives,” she added. “Magawa's dedication, skill, and bravery are an extraordinary example of this and deserve the highest possible recognition.”
Did you know rats have an amazing sense of smell? Rats in #Tanzania are trained to use that to detect tuberculosis. #UKaid is funding @HeroRATs. Detection of tuberculosis is up by 40% #AidWorkspic.twitter.com/yghaj4LXpX— Matthew Rycroft (@MatthewRycroft1) May 17, 2018
APOPO has previously been supported by funding from Britain’s UK aid budget — the spending used to tackle the root causes of extreme poverty, including protecting the health of people from vulnerable communities.
The aid budget has also backed charities such as the HALO Trust, an organisation that clears landmines and helps the recovery of countries affected by conflict. It’s helped finance staff training, educate local people about the dangers of landmines, and invest in technology like radar detectors that have removed hundreds of thousands of landmines worldwide.
However, earlier this month there were rumours circulating that the UK aid budget was due to be scrapped — after the world-leading department (the Department for International Development) that previously spent the funding was controversially merged with the Foreign Office, bringing the future accountability and effectiveness of the spending into doubt.
“Anti-personnel landmines are designed to rip off a person’s lower leg and force dirt and bone splinters up into their leg or body,” Penny Mordaunt, the UK’s former international development secretary, wrote in the Guardian in 2018 — explaining why UK aid funding was being used for landmine removal.
“UK expertise and innovation are helping to shield vulnerable people from these barbaric relics and liberating land contaminated by these devices,” she added. “This will allow the poorest people to grow crops, walk their children to school without fear, and ultimately, give them back control over their lives.”
She added: “The British public should feel immense pride in their critical contribution.”