Giant Rats to Sniff Out Wildlife Traffickers

U.S. officials want to put African pouched rats to work detecting pangolin parts at Tanzanian ports.
(Photo: Carl De Souza/Getty Images)
Oct 26, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service wants to see if the multitalented African pouched rat can help combat wildlife crimes by sniffing out illegally trafficked animals, such as the pangolin.

Cat-size African pouched rats have poor eyesight and hearing but a keen sense of smell. A Belgian-based nonprofit has used the species to diagnose tuberculosis in patients by having the rats smell saliva samples—a cheaper and faster way than typical lab tests. The same organization, called APOPO, also trained rats to recognize buried TNT so they can detect land mines in former war zones. So far, the rats have found 1,500 land mines in Africa and Southeast Asia.

Now the U.S. federal agency is spending $100,000 on a pilot project in Tanzania to train the rats to detect the scales of one of the most trafficked animals on the planet—the pangolin.

If the project proves promising, the grant would be “the first phase of a much larger project to mainstream rats as an innovative tool in combating illegal wildlife trade,” according to a Fish and Wildlife Service report. The first step will be to determine if the rats can find hidden pangolin scales and meat in a laboratory setting.

RELATED: Are Wildlife Trafficking Punishments Starting to Fit the Crimes?

The rat grant is part of a $1.2 million program to find innovative ways to deter wildlife poaching and trafficking. Most of the grant money is focused on deterring illegal trade in the endangered pangolin; more than 1 million of the scaly anteaters have been killed for body parts over the past decade. Their scales are used in traditional Asian medicines, and their meat is considered a delicacy.

“These grants provide much needed resources to support projects on the ground where wildlife trafficking is decimating some of the Earth’s most cherished and most unusual species,” Dan Ashe, Fish and Wildlife Service director, said in a statement. “These grant recipients are using pioneering approaches to address the illegal wildlife trade in the places where it starts and where demand for wildlife products feeds the criminal supply chain of illegal goods.”

While the rats could become key to the U.S.’ efforts to halt international wildlife trafficking, the species most likely won’t be coming to America for a victory parade. The rats, also known as Gambian pouched rats, were once imported to the U.S. as an exotic pet. But in the 1990s, a pet breeder released half a dozen rats onto Grassy Key, an island in the middle of the Florida Keys. The rats, capable of growing three feet long and weighing up to nine pounds, quickly began reproducing, and wildlife officials have been trying to eradicate the species ever since.