Magawa is a hero. He wasn’t born that way. Little did he know as he suckled on his mother’s teats that one day he would be regarded as a saviour. An angel of mercy. A preventer of untimely death. It is to heroes like Magawa that we must tip a respectful hat and thank for all his tireless work. If Princess Diana was still with us she would doubtless have had him upgraded to an OBE or something like that, but Magawa doesn’t feel cheated and even if he did he would probably say nothing because he has a dignity and subtlety and modesty that seems ever so rare these days. He hasn’t posted his achievements on social media or appeared on ‘The One Show’ sofa, and as far as I know he isn’t due to meet Michelle Obama for a photoshoot any time soon, though I’m sure she would leap at the opportunity. Come to think of it I wonder if Magawa even realises just what a huge honour has been bestowed upon him. Why would he, such glittering prizes are hardly ever afforded to a rat.
And not just any old rat, like the rats we think of when we think of rats. Slick, dirty buggers chewing on turds and fatty deposits somewhere in the environs of your local sewer network or rifling through soiled nappies in a pile of fly tipped domestic flotsam. Oh no, Magawa is a cut above all that. He has no time for the rats that fuel our nightmares for he is an African giant pouched rat (a much more comforting title, I know) and he is in the special forces of the rat world. He’s in the SAS, he’s a black belt, he’s MENSA material. He’s a big bastard as well: over a kilogram in weight and 70cm in length, which is 30cm shorter than a metre ruler, just in case your imagination is failing you. Oddly enough, while that may sound pretty big for a member of the Rattus genus it still means he is light enough to do his day job without fear of wiping himself clean off the animal kingdom register altogether. And this is a good thing too because it took a whole year to train him up.
Now that Magawa is seven years old he is coming near to retirement so the PDSA veterinary charity has decided it is as good a time as any to present him with its Gold Medal for “life saving devotion to duty”, a devotion that Magawa probably didn’t realise he had in him. Indeed if you asked what he did for a living I suspect he would have a tough time coming up with an answer. He is also very likely to be a bit surprised that we have rather arrogantly assumed his species would hold the same value in gold, when in fact he would have much preferred a half-eaten bacon sandwich and a rotting mango for a prize. On the other hand he should bloody well be grateful, because of the 30 animals that have been awarded the PDSA Gold Medal he is the first rat; and besides didn’t he make the choice all those years ago to become a land mine detecting rat anyway? Er, no, not really.
So that’s what Magawa does. I should have mentioned it earlier. It’s his job to sniff out landmines, specifically landmines in Cambodia, a country far away from his Tanzanian home. And suddenly it doesn’t seem quite as much fun: how would you like to be wrenched from your place of birth, exposed to a rigorous yearlong intense training regime and then be sent out to smell for high explosives? The guy surely deserves a bit more than a medal and membership of the so called ‘HeroRATs’. In an interesting slight of diversification Magawa and his fellow ‘HeroRats’ are also trained to detect tuberculosis, which is why you find so few tuberculosis sufferers with prosthetic limbs in Cambodia. It’s a bit like have hippos that can detect shotguns and leprosy. It’s also quite a distraction to recognise that humans are happy to use rats to detect landmines because they feel these little furry things are in some way inferior to us, but perhaps we should humble ourselves a touch and remember that at least rats don’t bury explosives under the ground to blow other members of their species up – I’d say that gives rats an unassailable moral advantage.
And that’s it, all very clear cut. Or is it? You may want all the facts before you start assuming Magawa and the ‘HeroRats’ are just about the best thing since handheld supermarket scanners. That’s right, Magawa is betrayed by the small print. I gather that he has sniffed out 39 landmines and 28 unexploded munitions over his distinguished career and that seems like some achievement, but only until you find out that it’s reckoned there are six million landmines in Cambodia. I won’t bore you with the maths but that does seem like quite a small proportion, you know, relatively speaking. At the rate that these ‘HeroRats’ are going I can’t see a squeaky (no pun intended) clean terrain any time soon. And while it may take a hero of Magawa’s stature 20 minutes to give an area the size of a tennis court the all clear (a human can take up to four days, which at best could be described as thorough) it also mentions he only works for half an hour a day. WTF! No wonder he’s only racked up 67 finds (or ‘sniffs’ as they call them in the rodent landmine detection business) if the most he can bother doing is cover a tennis court and a half a day. What he does with the rest of his time is a question that really should be answered if anyone feels so inclined to ask it, but of course they won’t, will they? Because not only does Magawa have a big, shiny, inappropriate gold medal, he’s also very close to being pensioned off so I expect they’ll just let his final months tick over and then brush his appalling work rate under the carpet. Because that’s how it works.
Oh well, I guess there’s no point in being angry. Technically speaking Magawa has uncovered a lot more explosive devices buried in the Cambodian subsoil than I have, but you can’t help feeling like all this praise needs to be given the context and analysis that is required; a service that apparently only I can offer you. Beneath the surface (again, no pun intended) this is really rather a stupid story about a rat that’s smart enough to find landmines but not get blown up by them. But the level of stupidity involved pales in comparison to my last two observations. Firstly, the BBC, that font of patronising idiocy has a video attached to the article from which all this is drawn titled – “Landmines: Why do they kill thousands every year?” – which is as inherently a daft a question as any other I could care to name. Secondly, in January this year Donald Trump lifted restrictions on US landmine use (overturning Michelle Obama’s husband’s ban in 2014), a move which is, I doubt you’d disagree, stupid beyond all measure. And so here I am, gently suggesting that if push came to shove, came to scratch, came to sniff I’d trust a fat, lazy rat over a lot of important people any day of the week. And certainly so would the people of Cambodia. Such is life.
G B Hewitt. 25.09.2020