Meet the rat who just won a medal of bravery for finding 39 land mines

A hard-working rodent named Magawa has gotten the international recognition most rats can only dream of.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
  • Third place film critic, 2021 LA Press Club National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards
Leslie Katz
3 min read

Now that's the face of a proud rat. 


Big congratulations are in order for Magawa, an African giant pouched rat just awarded a gold medal for "life-saving bravery" for his work detecting dangerous land mines. 

Born in Tanzania in 2014, Magawa has since age 2 enjoyed a highly successful career detecting land mines in Cambodia. So far, he's found 39 land mines and 28 items of unexploded ordnance, according to Apopo, a global nonprofit started in Belgium that breeds and trains rats for humanitarian work such as sniffing out land mines and tuberculosis.  

Magawa's impressive record makes him Apopo's most successful working rat, or "HeroRat," to date. It also makes him the first rat in UK animal charity PDSA's 77-year history of honoring critters to win a coveted PDSA Gold Medal. Other animals to receive the award have included dogs, horses, a pigeon and a cat, all of whom have shown gallantry, usually in protecting their human companions. 

"Apopo's HeroRats significantly speed up land mine detection using their amazing sense of smell and excellent memory," explains Apopo CEO and co-founder Christophe Cox. "We use clicker training to teach rats like Magawa to scratch at the ground above a land mine." That method teaches the student rats, who are trained in Tanzania, to distinguish between scrap metal and explosives by offering them rewards whenever they correctly find the right target scent. 


A HeroRat trained by Apopo out in the field sniffing for land mines. 


Apopo was established in the 1990s in response to research showing the detection of land mines to be the most expensive, tedious part of the global land mine problem. 

"Rats are fast," Cox says. "They can screen an area of 200 square meters in half an hour, something which would take a manual deminer four days." So far, Apopo hasn't had any accidents with the rats, he says, as they're too light to trigger a mine.  

Watch this: Solving Angola's land mine crisis

According to Apopo, people in 59 countries from Angola to Cambodia live in fear of land mines and other deadly remnants of past conflicts. The mines threaten residents' personal safety, make critical agricultural land unsafe to cultivate, cut off trade and other routes and prevent villages from expanding.    

Cambodia alone estimates that between 4 million and 6 million land mines were laid in the country between 1975 and 1998. These mines have caused over 64,000 casualties.

African giant pouched rats, common to Sub-Saharan Africa, can grow to be up to 3 feet long, including the length of their tail.  Unlike domestic rats, they have cheek pouches like hamsters have. Apopo's HeroRats usually retire between ages 7 and 8, so Magawa is nearing retirement. 

Magawa received his mini medal Friday via a live video linking Cambodia and PDSA representatives the UK. In the video, Magawa can be seen looking extraordinarily cute (like, Remy-level Pixar-cute) wearing his new symbol of heroism on a blue ribbon around his neck. He's also seen at work in the field and snuggling with his handler So Malen. 

"I am so proud because Magawa is a great partner for me," Malen says. 

Besides a high-profile award, what else can one get a rat deserving of all good things? A gift certificate for a tickle session might be a solid start.  

Land mines litter Angola after decades of war

See all photos