giant rats

Humanitarian rats

I was convinced that I had written this post about one year ago when I published the original article in the Spanish magazine Muy Interesante [1]. After a thorough check through my blog I realized that I did not!

Luckily, yesterday Mabel sent me a link of an article published by the BBC mentioning that Magawa was awarded the PDSA Gold Medal [2]. I will explain…

Magawa is a Southern giant pouched rat and the award given to it by the UK charity People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA). The medal says “For animal gallantry or devotion to duty”. Of the many animal recipients of the award, Magawa is the first rat.

The PDSA medal. Credit: Andrew69. Public domain.

So, prompted by the news, here goes a post based on the above-mentioned article, adjusted to the present time. defines a phobia as “a continuous irrational fear of something that leads to an overwhelming desire to avoid it”. The word comes from the Greek phobía (fear) as an exaggerated aversion to someone or something. The fear to rats and mice or musophobia (from Greek μῦς “mouse”) is one of the most common ones.

So, you would think that an encounter with a giant rat would lead to a terrible fear attack. However, this is not the case with these large rodents which are actually quite friendly and that I hope will be regarded even in a better light after you read these lines.

Although the taxonomy of the genus Cricetomys to which these African rats belong needs further revision, it is now accepted that there are four species: the Gambian pouched rat (C. gambianus), the Emin pouched rat (C. emini), the Kivu giant pouched rat (C. kivuensis) and the Southern giant pouched rat (C. ansorgei). The latter is the protagonist of this piece.

The Southern giant pouched rats can measure from 25 to 45cm with tails of up to 46cm and weigh up to 2kg. They are only distantly related to the real rats that are found in the Muridae family. Recent molecular studies place the Giant rats in the family Nesomyidae, part of an ancient radiation of African and Malagasy murids. The name “pouched rat” refers to the large pouches in their cheeks where they store food.

Pic 2. Adult rat. Copyright Caterina Caneva Saccardo/APOPO

These rats are omnivorous and feed on vegetation and small animals, especially insects.  They are very fond of filling their burrows with nuts, particularly palm nuts but also other nuts such as macadamias. Although they cannot apply the 21kg per cm2 needed to break them open, they do chew up their hard shells to devour the delicious and valuable nuts to our annoyance!

Pic 3. Macadamia nuts gnawed by the rats in Harare. Copyright: Bushsnob.

Like many other rodents such as hamsters, rabbits and guinea pigs, these rats are coprophagous as they ferment food in their distal intestines and produce soft faecal pellets containing still semi-digested food that they eat again to complete their assimilation.

Giant rats are capable of reproducing up to ten times a year with a gestation period of 27 to 36 days. One to five young are born at the same time as they are fed by the eight mammary glands that the females have.

Pic 4. Baby rats. Copyright Caterina Caneva Saccardo/APOPO

Giant rats are predominantly nocturnal [3] and they are an important food source in many parts of Africa where their meat is highly prized. In addition, although it may seem surprising, the giant rats do humanitarian work in several countries around the world!

APOPO [4] is a global, non-profit NGO registered in Belgium that uses Giant southern pouched rats for the removal of anti-personnel mines from past war theatres. To do this, they use the great sense of smell that these animals possess to detect trinitrotoluene (TNT).

APOPO has and is supporting mine clearance in Angola, Mozambique and Cambodia and plans are underway to start supporting Zimbabwe and possibly Colombia with mine clearance.

In order to work reliably, the rats must be trained for an average of nine months at an estimated cost of 6,000 Euros each. At the end of the process they must pass the accreditation tests before being “employed”. Once accredited, they are able to work for 4-5 years before retirement.

Pic 5. A technician with a giant rat. Copyright Caterina Caneva Saccardo/APOPO

Rats, being relatively light, can walk around in minefields sniffing out mines without the danger of being blown up. Their role is to find them and then have them removed or detonated by personnel specialized in this dangerous activity.

Pic 6. Rat detecting mines. Copyright: Aaron Gekoski, APOPO.

The advantage of using these rats is their ability to detect mines more quickly than traditional methods and without the danger of accidental explosions. A rat can search for mines in an area the size of a tennis court in half an hour. It would take an operator about four days to cover the same area.

The mine-clearing process

One of the severe consequences of conflicts are the unexploded mines that remainand cause terrible accidents to the population of the area. They stop them returningto their homes and work the land to survive after the conflict.

Mine removal starts with planning the work reviewing existing knowledge beforeproceeding with the work. The rats are a component of the process.

The use of the rats speeds up mine cleaning and allow the inhabitantsto return to their homes in less time than if only the conventional removalmethods would be used. Images by Art work by APOPO, modified by the Bushsnob

As if their support for the important humanitarian work of mine clearance would not be enough, rats are also capable of detecting human tuberculosis and APOPO is working on the diagnosis of the disease together with more than 140 public clinics in Tanzania, Mozambique and Ethiopia.

Pic 7. Rat checking samples of human tuberculosis. Copyright Caterina Caneva Saccardo/APOPO

These incredible rodents are capable of finding the disease in sputum samples declared negative by the APOPO’s associated clinics. As part of the existing collaboration APOPO confirms the findings of the rats in its laboratory [5] and then notifies the clinics. A rat can examine one hundred samples in less than twenty minutes, a task that would take a clinic technician four days to complete.

Despite the work done, there are still 60 countries suffering from the threat of mines that constitute a real structural barrier to development and economic growth in post-conflict situations. Thousands of innocent children and adults are injured or killed by mines. Detecting mines is difficult, dangerous, costly and time consuming.

Tuberculosis leads the world in causes of death from infectious diseases and there are ten million new cases per year and about 1.6 million people die from this disease every year.

It is clear then that there is still a long way to go and that rats have a very important role to play so support for organizations such as APOPO is essential.

The fine sense of smell of giant rats can offer other possibilities and APOPO is working on a project to use them to detect pangolin scales and African hardwoods. It can also be thought that rats could be useful in detecting rhinoceros’ horn and ivory as well as drugs and other forbidden substances.

So, back to Magawa the gold medal winner mine-detecting African giant pouched rat. It has sniffed out 39 landmines and 28 unexploded munitions in his career and placed itself in the PDSA “Hall of Fame”.

The award brings to our attention the silent and valuable work that humanitarian organizations are doing in clearing mines, However, we must not forget that new mines are still being produced and will be used and that there are still an estimated six million mines still buried in Cambodia alone!

[1] See:

[2] BBC: and

[3] See: in this blog.

[4] APOPO stands for Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling.

[5] With tests approved by the World Health Organisation.

Garden and gadgets

As I mentioned earlier (see:, we did get an improved drone as soon as prices dropped. Although my son immediately managed to fly it, I am still building my confidence after the earlier mishaps! However, as this contraption almost flies by itself, I believe that with a bit of practice I will soon manage. I will report on “droning” in a future post.

In addition to the drone, I have improved on my camera and bought a Nikon Coolpix P600 with a 60X optical zoom. I chose this (in fact my daughter did…) because it is powerful while being quite light. We are already loaded with binoculars to add more weight! Not being a pro, it is good enough to capture what I see although I have always believed that there is no substitute for your eyes! To this I added a tripod and downloaded an App that enables you to take pictures wirelessly using my smartphone.

Going almost beyond my mental capability I also got a camera trap! Its increasing use worldwide has made these affordable so I decided to get one as well to top up my gadget bag that already contains a number of goodies such as UV torch, normal torches, battery boosters for phones, video camera, night vision googles and binoculars.

They both have been a great success so far.

The very day I got the camera trap -brought from the USA by my son- I set it up in the garden and I have done so for a few nights over the last couple of weeks. Although It is not meant to take high resolution images, its pictures are good enough to identify animals, provided that you point it in the right direction!

Through the pictures and videos it took during the day I managed to confirm some of the birds visiting our bird bath and feeding table as well as to detect some new ones. So far we had mourning dove, forked-tailed drongo, dark-capped bulbul, kurrichane thrush, white-browed robin chat, yet unidentified weavers and fire finches, blue waxbill, variable sunbird and purple crested lourie. In addition, leaving the camera overnight confirmed the crepuscular habits of both robin chats and drongos.

A laughing dove.

A laughing dove.

A robin chat and bulbuls.

A robin chat and bulbul.

A pair of variable sunbirds.

A pair of variable sunbirds.

A close-up of a purple-crested lourie.

A close-up of a purple-crested lourie.

I also did some detective work in connection with the unravelling of a garden mystery: the nocturnal disappearance of the bird seed from the feeding table! I managed to expose the culprits that were no others than the suspected African Giant Pouched Rats (Cricetomys sp. Ansorgei). They were already high on the possible culprit list as we had evidence of their presence through large fresh burrows and macadamia nut shells found in the adjacent areas. If you have tried to crack one of these nuts, it will give you an idea of the gnawing power of these animals!

Macadamia nut husks (top) and whole nuts (bottom) to show the way the rats eat them.

Macadamia nut husks (top) and whole nuts (bottom) to show the way the rats eat them.

In addition to finding the somehow expected rats, we came across another animal that came as a surprise as Nature will not disappoint you if you look for new things! One of the nights we were after the bird seed-eating culprits an African civet (Civettictis civetta) came by for a drink! Consulting the Internet I learnt that they do move into urban environment and that they also climb on house roofs!

The African civet drinking.

The African civet drinking.

Having detected the birds and animals present in the garden, it was time to use the tripod and remote control on the Nikon camera and attempt to document some of the visitors with a better resolution. This I am doing at the moment and learning.

Better pictures of the lourie taken with the Nikon camera and remote control device.

Better pictures of the lourie bathing taken with the Nikon camera and remote control device.

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The louries have always been in the garden but always high on the trees. It is only recently that they have decided to come for a dip in the birdbath. The hamerkop comes often to decimate the toad population in our water storage tank (read swimming pool).

The hamerkop taking up position by the pool.

The hamerkop taking up position by the pool.

Stalking toads.

Stalking toads.



I need to take advantage of the present dry conditions prevalent in Harare so when the rains come later in the year the animals will disperse.


Note: this post has not been checked by my Editor.


Added on 5 September 2015: Although I identified the night cat-like visitor as an African civet, subsequent Internet search makes me think that it could in fact have been a genet. I am trying to get another picture to clarify the situation.