Lifestyle & Human Interest

Meet the Award-Winning 'Hero' Rat Who Has Helped Save Countless Lives


When you think of hero animals, you probably think of large critters such as dogs. And it’s true — there are countless stories, memorials and awards that have gone to brave and loyal canine friends.

But recently, it was a rat named Magawa who was given a very prestigious award. That may seem odd, but Magawa is no ordinary rat.

As an African giant pouched rat, Magawa is larger than the garden-variety rodent that probably popped up in your mind’s eye. These kinds of rats live up to eight years, are very smart and trainable, and have a keen sense of smell.

APOPO, a Belgian organization, has tapped into the potential of these animals by training them to detect both tuberculosis and landmines. Magawa has been trained to do the latter.
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Forgotten explosives have plagued certain parts of the world far past the conflicts during which they were set. The result has been many deaths, injuries and constant danger for the people living in those areas.

“Over 60 countries are contaminated with hidden landmines and other explosive remnants of war, that cause tragic accidents and hamper communities from developing their productive land,” the APOPO website states.

The process of detecting landmines, done manually by humans, is tedious, time-consuming and dangerous. One wrong move could cost the detector their life.

According to what APOPO chief executive Christophe Cox said in a video interview, it takes a human four days to clear 200 square meters: It takes a rat 30 minutes.

They’re good at what they do. Really good. Workers are so confident in the rats’ abilities to detect all the mines that they often play soccer on the area in question once it has been cleared.

Add to that the fact that rats are too light to set off mines intended to kill humans and you have a near-flawless solution. APOPO stresses that the rats were chosen as detection animals because they are so light and reassures readers that not one has ever been lost to a mine.

Magawa was born in Tanzania and trained for nine months to detect landmines. Since then, he has become the organization’s most effective and successful landmine detection rat — or, as the group refers to them, HeroRAT.

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Magawa works in Cambodia, where there are an estimated 3 million landmines still unaccounted for, according to NBC’s “Today.”

To date, he has cleared over 141,000 square meters of land, and discovered 28 items of unexploded ordnance and 39 landmines.

Because of his impressive and life-saving track record, Magawa was recognized by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals late last month with the civilian award for animal bravery, the group’s highest civilian honor.

“He can search the area of a tennis court in 30 minutes, something that would take a human with a metal detector up to four days,” the group confirmed in an article featuring the hard-working rat.

In 77 years the PDSA has been giving out awards, Magawa is the first rat to receive a medal. He joins a legion of heroes made up of dogs and pigeons, as well as a few horses and a cat, according to the PDSA website.

Thanks to this fine-tuned critter, lives are no longer at risk in some areas — and that’s quite a resume for a rodent. By the time this fellow gets to retirement, he will have earned his rest.

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