The Rat Patrol


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“When cats are hairdressers, rats will always go around with uncombed hair.”

-African Proverb

          Please be assured, dear readers, that I search far and wide for topics of interest. This column is a good example of that: It is the story of Magawa, a rat – and an award-winning one at that. Perhaps the reputation of rats in general will be enhanced by the time you finish reading this.

Recently, the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals in Great Britain awarded its Gold Medal for valor to Magawa for “life-saving bravery.” What in the world did this African pouched rat do? It has, in the last few years, detected 39 land mines and 28 unexploded devices in Cambodia.

Before offering more details about Magawa, let us put this in perspective. There are over 60 million people in 59 countries from Angola to Cambodia living in daily fear of land mines and other remnants of past conflict. These lethal devices continue to threaten personal safety, economic development, and food security. In some countries, while people starve agricultural land is considered too unsafe to farm and for grazing livestock. 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 at the same time global funding is declining.

An organization called APOPO (based in Belgium, it’s an acronym for a long Dutch name) clears land each year of explosive devices. In 2020, it cleared well over 3 million square meters. And this would not have been possible without the help of little heroes like Magawa. They speed up land-mine detection using their amazing sense of smell and excellent memory. Trainers use clicker training to teach rats like Magawa to scratch at the ground above a land mine. During training they hear a “click” and receive a tasty food reward for finding the correct target scent.

Unlike metal detectors, the rats ignore scrap metal and only sniff out explosives, making them fast and efficient land-mine detectors. This not only saves lives but returns much-needed safe land back to the communities as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. This in turn will allow the families living around the minefields to get their lives back on track.

Let’s look at just one country. Over 1 million tons of bombs were dropped in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. An untold number landed and remain unexploded, and they lurk in addition to thousands of hidden land mines. It’s no wonder that Cambodia has more than 25,000 amputees, the highest ratio of mine amputees anywhere in the world. (By the way, the most mine-affected country in the world is Afghanistan.)

Now to the particulars on Magawa. He is not just a pouched rat but an African giant pouched rat that was born in Morogoro, Tanzania, on November 25, 2013. He grew up at APOPO's Training and Research Center in Tanzania where he learned how to detect the smell of explosives using his nose. Under the guidance of his human nurturers he fully completed his training in nine months and began to prepare to leave for the field. Magawa moved to Siem Reap in Cambodia in 2016 where he met his new handler, Malen, and began his successful career. Magawa is 70 centimeters long, weighs 1230 grams (thus too light to trigger a land mine), and his favorite foods are bananas and peanuts. He is described by handlers as “a determined worker and always friendly.” Magawa can search a 200-square-meter minefield in 20 minutes.

With having found 39 land mines and 28 items of unexploded ordnance, Magawa is APOPO’s most successful “Hero Rat.” Over the past four years he has helped clear over 141,000 square meters of land (the equivalent of 20 football fields), “allowing local communities to live, work and play without fear of losing life or limb,” according to APOPO.

Now is a good time in this column to put in a word about the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals. It is Great Britain’s leading veterinary charity, providing free and reduced-cost veterinary care to the pets of people in need. The PDSA Gold Medal is awarded to civilian animals for life-saving bravery and exceptional devotion to duty. Magawa is the 30th recipient of the PDSA Gold Medal, and the first none-canine to receive it. Curious about previous recipients? Go to  

Magawa was formally presented with his rat-sized PDSA Gold Medal via a live link between Cambodia and the Great Britain by the PDSA’s director general. He did not give a speech of thanks, but handlers noted that Magawa is the first ratin the charity’s 77-year history of honoring animals to receive a PDSA medal, joining a line-up of brave dogs, horses, pigeons, and even a cat.

Admit it: You did not think that you would be reading about a hero rat today, did you?

Tom Clavin is the bestselling author/co-author of 18 books, including, most recently, “Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride From Hell.” The next collaboration with Bob Drury, “Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier,” will be published in April by St. Martin’s Press. Please go to your local bookstore or to Amazon/ to pre-order.

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