Africans Training RATS to be Detectives

AFRICAN GIANT POUCHED RAT.

Westerners are at the forefront of teaching the African to work at preserving wildlife.

The oddity of giant sniffer rats in training is good news, if it helps preserve Africa’s endangered species.

Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The pangolin, a scaly anteater coveted by poachers, might have a new champion: rats that will be trained to sniff out trafficked pangolin parts in shipments heading from Africa to Asia.

A pilot project to turn African giant pouched rats into conservationist sleuths is literally in its infancy – the 10 to 15 rodents being reared in Tanzania to detect pungent pangolin remains as well as smuggled hardwood timber are just a few weeks old and most are still with their mothers.

The challenge seems overwhelming.

Conservationists describe the pangolin as the world’s most heavily trafficked mammal because its meat is considered a delicacy in Vietnam and some parts of China, and its scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Wildlife contraband is concealed among vast numbers of shipping containers that annually leave Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Mombasa in Kenya and other African ports.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust , a South African group leading the project, said the trial “builds on the use of scent detection by dogs, but will take advantage of the rats’ added agility and ability to access the container vents, which would provide the most air from the container, and potentially the most scent. Alternatively, the rats will detect scents sampled onto a filter through the vents.”

Handlers can dispatch rats with leashes and harnesses into hard-to-reach areas, but then “how are they going to tell us that they’ve found something?” said Kirsty Brebner of the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

One option being considered is to install small cameras on the backs of the rats, an idea that has been discussed for the detection of people trapped in collapsed buildings after an earthquake or bombing.

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