Magawa at work. Photo by APOPO

Move Over K9s, 2020 is the Year of the Rat!

We at Homeland Security Today are a team of animal lovers, and of course we support and applaud all – human and animal – who work to keep people and infrastructure safe and secure. With this Lunar New Year marking the Year of the Rat, it seemed only right that we should adopt a rat as our company mascot.

But this is no ordinary rat. Magawa is a scent detection rat, working with registered non-governmental organization APOPO, which was founded in 1997 to detect landmines.

A conventional mine-clearance approach uses machines and deminers with metal detectors. When the APOPO “HeroRATs” are added, they can significantly speed up operations. This provides considerable cost savings and makes the land available for use as quickly as possible.

APOPO trains southern giant pouched rats, which are larger than regular rats, to use their excellent sense of smell to sniff out the landmines. Dogs are not as suitable for this work due to their weight, which is enough to trigger a landmine.

Magawa can search a 200 square meter minefield in 20 minutes. This would take a technician with a metal detector between one and four days. He is currently working in Cambodia, which has the highest ratio of mine amputees per capita in the world.

Magawa and his fellow HeroRATs are trained to differentiate between the landmines and scrap metal, and to signal to their handler when they have detected a mine. The handler then safely demolishes the mine.

Described as friendly and determined, 6-year-old Magawa takes his pay in the form of peanuts and bananas, as well as regular rat pellets. As with working K9s, the HeroRATs have a close bond with their handler. APOPO is careful to ensure the rats are well cared for and have room to play and socialize. After all, we all know that happy workers get the job done!

Magawa worked hard throughout 2019 to clear a total of 66,623 sqm of land which has been given back to local residents for agriculture, development, or recreational land. He found 55 landmines in this time and 39 explosive remnants of war.

APOPO rats are also trained to detect tuberculosis in human sputum samples. Research indicates that the APOPO rats could be improving detection rates by up to 40%.

Scores of countries around the world have banned landmine use. However, the Trump administration recently lifted the ban on U.S. military use of the weapon. In a statement, the administration said a new Department of Defense policy will determine how and when, “in exceptional circumstances,” U.S. military commanders can deploy landmines equipped with self-destruct/self-deactivation mechanisms. It is hoped that the policy will include removal of the landmines when no longer required to protect troops. Otherwise, the world is going to need more hero rats.

Read more about the rats at APOPO

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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