30 November, 2016
Giant rats could help fight wildlife smuggling in Africa
Smugglers of pangolins, elephant tusks and rhino horn, meet your match: the sniffing rats.
Conservationists in Tanzania are training the rodents to smell trafficked animal parts and illegal timber in shipments from Africa to Asia.
The fledgling program aims to harness rats' keen sense of smell to combat the rampant global trade in illegal goods. Scaly pangolins, elephants and rhinos are facing extinction as poachers hunt more of them down for parts and meat.
APOPO, a Belgian non-profit group involved in the project, has worked for years with African giant pouched rats. Their rodents learn to sniff out mines on old battlefields in Angola, Mozambique and Cambodia, or to detect tuberculosis in phlegm samples from patients in Tanzania and Mozambique.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service awarded $100,000 to the new anti-poaching effort as part of the Obama administration's broader $1.2 million initiative to combat illegal wildlife trafficking.
The grants "support projects on the ground where wildlife trafficking is decimating some of the Earth's most cherished and most unusual species," Dan Ashe, the agency's director, said in an October statement.
Endangered Wildlife Trust, a South African organization, is spearheading the latest rat-sniffing initiative with APOPO. The pilot project will begin by rearing 10 to 15 rodents in Tanzania.
The rats, only a few weeks old right now, will begin with "socialization training," which includes riding on people's shoulders and sitting in their pockets to get used to sights and sounds, James Pursey, APOPO's spokesman, told the Associated Press.
Next up: "click and reward" training. The trainers feed rats a treat whenever the rodents hear a clicking sound, so that rats will eventually associate the scent of pangolins and other animals with edible rewards.
Finally, trainers will reduce the intensity of animal scents and mix in other smells to confuse the rats, leading them to scratch or linger over a certain site. In the real world, this behavior would tip off handlers to a possible find.
The pilot project will initially focus on illegal hardwood timber and pangolins, which are believed to be the most trafficked animals in the world. Pangolin scales are a common ingredient in traditional Asian medicines, and their meat is considered a delicacy in parts of Vietnam and China.
Organizers said they next hope to train the rats to find smuggled elephant ivory and rhino horn.
If all goes according to plan, the pangolin-sniffing rats could finally get to work in about a year or so. APOPO's Pursey told the AP that the rodents will stick to perusing cargo rather than people's personal luggage.
Travelers wouldn't be "particularly enamored" to have rats crawling all over their belongings, he said.