Magawa and his rat-sized PDSA Gold Medal. (APOPO)

Landmine Detection Hero Becomes First Rat to Receive Prestigious Bravery Award

Back in December, the Homeland Security Today team adopted a new mascot. Magawa is a giant pouched rat who works for the non-profit APOPO and his job is to sniff out landmines so they can be safely removed before causing injury or death.

Now, Magawa has been awarded the rare and sought-after PDSA Gold Medal – the animal equivalent of the George Cross medal for bravery. He is the first rat in the PDSA’s 77-year history of honoring animals to receive a PDSA Medal – joining a line-up of brave dogs, horses, pigeons and a cat. Magawa is the 30th recipient of the PDSA Gold Medal.

PDSA or People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals is the U.K.’s leading veterinary charity, and the PDSA Gold Medal is awarded to civilian animals for life-saving bravery and exceptional devotion to duty. The Medal is now recognized worldwide. 

Magawa is APOPO’s most successful landmine detection rat. To date he has found 39 landmines and 28 items of unexploded ordnance. Over the past four years he has helped clear over 141,000 square meters of land (the equivalent of twenty soccer pitches), allowing local communities to live, work and play without fear of losing life or limb.

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. 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.

Over 60 million people living in 59 countries from Angola to Cambodia, do so in daily fear of landmines and other remnants of past conflict. Landmines remain as painful and dangerous reminders of the past, continuing to threaten personal safety, economic development and food security; agricultural land is left unsafe to farm and grazing livestock is perilous. Trade routes remain closed, cutting off communities and denying families displaced by war the chance to return home safely. Yet detecting these weapons is very tedious and therefore expensive while global funding is declining.

Magawa is currently working in Cambodia, which has the highest ratio of mine amputees per capita in the world. APOPO’s Cambodia program now clears more land each year than any other APOPO program. Targeting 3,500,000 m2 in 2020, APOPO has already achieved 81% of its yearly target, having cleared 2,862,736 m2 between January-August. This would not have been possible without the help of little heroes like Magawa.

This video on the PDSA YouTube channel explains a little about the award and gives a fascinating snapshot of Magawa’s training and life with APOPO (from about five minutes in), as well as hearing from the people he has helped.

Magawa and his colleagues could always use an extra dollar, or banana. To help out, you can adopt a rat or detection dog 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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