Giant African Pouched rat being trained by the Belgian Mine Action goup APOPO for use in demining programs in Mozambique Credit Eric Nathan / Alamy Stock Photo

Credit: Eric Nathan / Alamy Stock Photo

Animals

Rats: The Scratch And Sniff Kings Of Bomb Detection

From medal winning Magawa to newbie Shuri - these rats have saved countless lives

Giant African Pouched rat being trained by the Belgian Mine Action goup APOPO for use in demining programs in Mozambique Credit Eric Nathan / Alamy Stock Photo

Credit: Eric Nathan / Alamy Stock Photo

A medal-winning landmine-detection rat praised for "lifesaving bravery" has retired from service - but why are rats used and what other animals have served their country with the armed forces? 

African giant pouched rat Magawa, who served for five years before retiring in June 2021, can boast of being able to search the area of a tennis court in 30 minutes. 

A task like that would take a human up to four days to complete and risk getting themselves blown up in the process. 

Magawa, whose job title was HeroRAT, became the first rat to be awarded a made-to-measure miniature PDSA Gold Medal in September 2020. The medal rewards civilian acts of animal bravery and exceptional devotion to duty and is the animal equivalent of the George Cross. 

Before retiring Magawa was described as the most successful HeroRAT of all time, having discovered 71 landmines, 38 items of unexploded ordnance and helped clear more than 225,000 square metres of land in his five years in the role. 

The average working day for a bomb-detection rat like Magawa is around half an hour, during which time if they detect a particular chemical compound used in the making of landmines, they will scratch the surface of the ground. 

This is similar to how improvised explosive device (IED) detection dogs will sit or lie down suddenly if they sniff any hint of explosives during searches with their handler.

You might have heard of scratch and sniff but to sniff and then scratch means a bomb detection rat has detected the presence of a mine buried underground.

The scratching action works by letting the handler of the  the HeroRAT know a landmine has been discovered and then work can be done to clear the area, making it safe for humans again. 

Once the rats are back with their handlers, they are rewarded with some banana to eat.

Magawa wearing his PDSA Gold Medal| Credit: PDSA

Who Trains Bomb Detection Rats? 

We have charity APOPO to thank for training rats like Magawa to detect landmines. Established in the early 1990s in Belgium and relying on donations to train rats, the charity’s mission is simple - save lives. 

The rats are trained for two purposes. The first being to detect Tuberculosis, a bacterial infection that mainly affects the lungs, in sputum samples 96 times faster than a lab technician can 

The second is by detecting landmines in order to bring peace back to families around the world who fear where they live. 

PDSA gold medal-winning rodent Magawa is not the only rat trained by APOPO. The charity has 45 HeroRATs available to detect landmines and 31 ready to sniff out Tuberculosis with two currently available for adoption to help raise vital funds to continue the lifesaving work. Carolina is a female Tuberculosis Detection Rat and Shuri is a female Mine Detection Rat. 

Magawa was born in Tanzania but travelled thousands of miles to work in Cambodia, Southeast Asia. After Afghanistan, Cambodia is the second most mine-affected country in the world, so the work done by Magawa and Shuri, while wearing a harness and lead, is speeding up the process by which land is cleared and made safe again. 

PDSA Director General Jan McLoughlin believes the work of Magawa and APOPO is “truly unique and outstanding”. She said: 

"Cambodia estimates that between four and six million landmines were laid in the country between 1975 and 1998, which have sadly caused more than 64,000 casualties.” 

Why Are Rats Used To Help Detect Landmines?

  • Their sense of smell and intelligence are excellent 
  • They enjoy training and learn fast 
  • Rats are small so don’t set off the landmines with their weight 
  • There is no shortage of African giant pouched rats 
  • The rodents love attention with many enjoying the company of humans 
  • It does not cost much to feed or house them 
  • They can live for between six and eight years
 Gambian Pouched Rat Cricetomys gambianus Credit: Penny Boyd / Alamy Stock Photo

Credit: Penny Boyd / Alamy Stock Photo

Dstl Research Into Bomb Detection Rats 

A Sunday Telegraph article published in April 2021 reported on a scientific paper, produced by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) and Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace, which suggested Britain was looking  into improving the way rats are trained to detect bombs. 

The report suggested that “the British Army is set to recruit bomb-sniffing rats after Porton Down scientists designed a hi-tech system that can be used to train rodents”. 

A 22-page patent, filed with the Intellectual Property Office, was said to be looking to improve on the current method of offering laboratory rats individual smells to detect one by one in return for treats if they get it right. 

Instead, the idea was to offer rats several smells via a carousel system to represent real-life working environments. When rats are sniffing out land mines, they are tasked with having to detect one distinct smell out of the many surrounding them. 

However, Dstl said in response to the report that the MOD “does not currently use rats as military working animals” but that the research would be used to improve the training of detection dogs. 

So perhaps we will not be seeing African giant pouched rats like Magawa working for Britain’s armed forces any time soon. 

Why Do We Use Animals For Jobs Humans Can Do? 

Quite simply put, animals are cheaper to feed, train and house than humans plus do not require a wage. Instead of getting paid monthly, the animals get treats as rewards for good behaviour.

Military working animals can often go places humans cannot. For example, our weight means humans cannot freely walk across a field filled with landmines for fear of detonating one. 

Rats are light and nimble enough to easily navigate around while wearing a harness and alert their handlers to the presence of a mine. 

Dolphins 

The US Navy began working with dolphins in the 1960s to help with mine detection and the design of new submarines and underwater weapons. 

Paul Nachtigall, Director of the Marine Mammal Research Program at the Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology in Kāne‘ohe Bay, says dolphins cannot be beaten when it comes to finding mines.  

"[Bottlenose dolphins] are better than any machine as far as detecting mines." 

This is because dolphin's sonar is so precise.  

Dolphins navigate around their environment by sending out a series of sounds that ‘bounce off’ objects found in the sea like coral, whales and submarines. Just like bats, the mammals pick up the return echoes and form an idea of what is around them. This is known as echolocation or biosonar.

Video: US Navy video by LT Andrew Thompson

Dogs 

Military Working Dogs serve alongside their handlers in patrols, search and rescue missions, sniffing out arms and explosives and working alongside military police forces. 

They are also used as therapy and morale dogs, an uplifting presence during deployments to conflict zones, for example, or as a mascot to keep up spirits. 

An example of this is the British Army's late LCpl Liam Tasker, of the 1st Military Working Dog Regiment, who with his devoted dog Theo, held a record for the most confirmed finds of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) ever, in the months before the pair died in the service of their country while on deployment.  

In just five months, they had uncovered 14 Taliban roadside bombs and hidden weapons.