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Magawa, a rat that has been trained to detect explosives, was awarded the PDSA Gold Medal on Friday for his bravery in searching out unexploded landmines in Cambodia.
PDSA via AP
PDSA via AP
In Cambodia, Rats Are Being Trained To Sniff Out Land Mines And Save Lives
«That’s why we came up with the idea of using rats, because rats are fast. They can screen an area of 200 square meters in half an hour – something which would take a manual deminer four days,» Cox explained at the virtual ceremony.
Magawa is part of a cohort of rats bred by APOPO for this purpose. He was born in Tanzania in 2014, socialized, and moved to Siem Reap, Cambodia, in 2016 to begin his bomb-sniffing career.
Magawa was honored in a virtual ceremony on Friday.
APOPO uses positive reinforcement methods that give the rats food rewards for accomplishing tasks such as finding a target or walking across a surface. Then they’re trained in scent discrimination: choosing explosive smells over something else, in order to get a food reward.
Though they have terrible eyesight, the rats are ideal for such work, with their extraordinary sense of smell and their light weight – they are too light to trigger the mines. When they detect a mine, they lightly scratch atop it, signaling to their handler what they’ve found.
Their reward: a banana.
Cox says the rats hone their skills in a training field, and are only cleared to begin work once they have perfect accuracy over an 8,600 square-foot area with various stages of complexity.
«We really trust our rats, because very often after clearing a minefield, our teams will play a game of soccer on the cleared field to assure the quality of our work,» he says.
Cox says the rats have freed more than a million people from the terror of living with landmines.
On weekends, the rats get special feast meals. And once their skills wane, they go to a rat retirement home where they get food and play for the rest of their days.
Cox says he hopes the award will bring more attention to the cause that Magawa and his human colleagues are devoted to. «We hope we can solve the landmine problem in the next five to ten years. But it needs the engagement and the support of the wider public.»
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