Giant rats to be used as foot soldiers in war on wildlife trafficking

We’ve all heard of sniffer dogs used by law enforcement to root out contraband such as drugs and food. But sniffer rats?

Now, the U.S. government is earmarking $100,000 to fund a program to train African giant pouched rats to detect illegal timber and pangolins in shipping containers in Tanzania.

The partnership with Endangered Wildlife Trust would test whether the 3-foot-long rodents with super sniffers could help  cut off wildlife trafficking at ports.

“This project plans to provide proof of principle that this is possible and would be the first phase of a much larger project to mainstream rats as an innovative tool in combating illegal wildlife trade,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says in a briefing note.

Shipping containers are often used to smuggle large volumes of wildlife contraband, such as pangolin skins and scales.

The money will be used to test the rats in a laboratory for their ability to pick up the scent, train them to alert humans and the best way to use their keen sense of smell.

This isn’t the first time humans have turned to giant rats for help. They are currently being used in the painstaking – and otherwise expensive – task of land mine detection.

“They quickly and accurately find landmines because they only smell explosive and ignore all the bits of metal lying around,” the Endangered Wildlife Trust notes. “They really speed up mine clearance efforts and get communities safely back on their land. All these villagers want is the dignity of being able to work and support their families without constantly living in fear.”

The non-profit group APOPO has been busy training rats to do precisely that – and more – with amazing success.

It is breeding, training and accrediting rats, which have sniffed out thousands of land mines, unexploded ordnance and other munitions around the world. It has trained even more rats to detect Tuberculosis with hundreds of thousands sputum samples already screened and thousands of TB patients detected.

“We train rats to save lives,” the group says.

Giant rats are trained to detect land mines. Jeroen Van Loon/APOPO/Facebook
Giant rats are trained to detect land mines. Jeroen Van Loon/APOPO/Facebook

The Tanzania wildlife trafficking project is part of a $1.2-million U.S.-funded initiative to help combat the illegal trade.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is funding 12 projects in 13 countries including Belize, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Peru and South Africa. Another almost $840,000 came in as matching funds for the initiatives.

A land mine detection rat in action/Maarten Boersema/APOPO/Facebook
A land mine detection rat in action/Maarten Boersema/APOPO/Facebook

h/t The Guardian Photos APOPO HeroRats/Facebook

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