Landmine detection rat wins top UK animal bravery award

Magawa, an African giant pouched rat, has received a prestigious gold medal from PDSA for his work in detecting land mines in Siem Reap, Cambodia. (AFP)
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Updated 25 September 2020

Landmine detection rat wins top UK animal bravery award

  • Magawa, who was trained by the Belgian charity APOPO, has sniffed out 39 land mines and 28 items of unexploded ordnance
  • He can scurry across an area the size of a tennis court in just 30 minutes, something that would take four days using a conventional metal detector

LONDON: Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. A five-year-old giant African pouched rat called Magawa, however, has to be one of the world’s most unlikely life-savers.
The rodent has won the animal equivalent of Britain’s highest civilian honor for bravery because of his uncanny knack of sniffing out land mines and unexploded ordnance.
British veterinary charity the PDSA on Friday awarded Magawa its Gold Medal “for his life-saving bravery and devotion to duty,” which had transformed the lives of people in Cambodia.
Magawa, who was trained by the Belgian charity APOPO, has sniffed out 39 land mines and 28 items of unexploded ordnance, making him the organization’s most successful “HeroRAT.”
“The work of HeroRAT Magawa and APOPO is truly unique and outstanding,” said PDSA director-general Jan McLoughlin.
“HeroRAT Magawa’s work directly saves and changes the lives of men, women and children who are impacted by these land mines.”
Millions of land mines were laid in Cambodia between 1975 and 1998, causing tens of thousands of casualties.
Magawa, based in the northern city of Siem Reap, is the first rat to receive a PDSA medal in the 77 years of the awards, joining an illustrious band of brave canines and felines — and even a pigeon.
The PDSA Gold Medal is the animal equivalent of Britain’s George Cross. The charity also awards the Dickin Medal, for military animals.
APOPO trained Magawa in his native Tanzania to detect the chemical compound within explosives by rewarding him with tasty treats — his favorite being bananas and peanuts.
The rats alert de-miners by scratching the earth.
He can scurry across an area the size of a tennis court in just 30 minutes, something that would take four days using a conventional metal detector.
He is big enough to be attached to a leash as he goes about his business but light enough not to set off mines.
“The PDSA Gold Medal award brings the problem of land mines to global attention,” said Christophe Cox of APOPO.
Cox said its team of “HeroRATs” speeded up land mine detection because of their keen sense of smell and recall.
“Unlike metal detectors, the rats ignore scrap metal and only sniff out explosives making them fast and efficient land mine detectors,” Cox said.
“This not only saves lives but returns much-needed safe land back to the communities as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.”
APOPO currently has 45 rats finding land mines and 31 detecting tuberculosis in Africa and Asia, according to its website.


Mysterious obelisk in US desert draws wild theories

Updated 25 November 2020

Mysterious obelisk in US desert draws wild theories

  • Some observers pointed out the object’s resemblance to the avant-garde work of John McCracken

LOS ANGELES: A mysterious metal obelisk found buried in the remote western United States desert has inflamed the imaginations of UFO spotters, conspiracy theorists and Stanley Kubrick fans around the world.
The shiny, triangular pillar – which protrudes approximately 12 feet from the red rocks of southern Utah – was spotted last Wednesday by baffled local officials counting bighorn sheep from the air.
After landing their helicopter to investigate, Utah Department of Public Safety crew members found “a metal monolith installed in the ground” but “no obvious indication of who might have put the monolith there.”
“It is illegal to install structures or art without authorization on federally managed public lands, no matter what planet you’re from,” warned the agency in a tongue-in-cheek press release Monday.
News of the discovery quickly went viral online, with many noting the object’s similarity with strange alien monoliths that trigger huge leaps in human progress in Kubrick’s classic sci-fi film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Others remarked on its discovery during a turbulent year that has seen the world gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic, and optimistically speculated it could have a different function entirely.
“This is the ‘reset’ button for 2020. Can someone please press it quickly?” joked one Instagram user.
“Up close it reads: ‘Covid vaccine inside’” wrote another.
Although officials have refused to disclose the object’s location out of fear that hordes of curious sightseers would flock to the remote wilderness, a Reddit user said they had managed to geo-locate the obelisk using surrounding rock formations.
Sharing the Google Earth location – where a small structure can be seen, roughly six miles from the nearest road – the user said the structure was first photographed by Google in 2016.
Bret Hutchings, the pilot who happened to fly over the obelisk, speculated that it had been planted by “some new wave artist.”
Some observers pointed out the object’s resemblance to the avant-garde work of John McCracken, a US artist who lived for a time in nearby New Mexico, and died in 2011.
On Tuesday a spokeswoman for his representative David Zwirner said it was not one of McCracken’s works, but possibly by a fellow artist paying homage.
However later in the day Zwirner gave another statement in which he suggested the piece was indeed by McCracken, meaning it had lain undiscovered in the desert for nearly a decade.
“The gallery is divided on this,” Zwirner said. “I believe this is definitely by John.”
He added: “Who would have known that 2020 had yet another surprise for us. Just when we thought we had seen it all. Let’s go see it.”
Either way, Hutchings admitted it was “about the strangest thing I’ve come across out there, in all my years of flying.”
“We were kind of joking around that if one of us suddenly disappears, then the rest of us make a run for it,” he told local news channel KSLTV.