A New Secret Weapon Against Illegal Wildlife Trafficking: Rats

U.S. Army Material Command via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
U.S. Army Material Command via Flickr // CC BY 2.0 / U.S. Army Material Command via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The African pouched rat’s most noticeable characteristic is its size, but its most useful one might be its sniffer. The three-foot-long rodent (its tail makes up half its length) has a sense of smell that rivals a canine’s—and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) wants to put this trait to good use. As Atlas Obscura reports, the federal government agency recently announced that it will fund a special team of the rodents to fight illegal wildlife tracking in Africa.

The USFWS has contributed $100,000 to a pilot program in Tanzania. There, officials will test to see whether the rodents can detect shipments of illegal items—like the scaled hinds of an oft-hunted mammal called the pangolin and certain kinds of hardwood timbers—and inform humans. 

If all goes well, the Tanzania experiment will be "the first phase of a much larger project to mainstream rats as an innovative tool in combating illegal wildlife trade," the USFWS said in a project summary [PDF]. According to The Guardian, officials plan to spend $1.2 million in total to hire forest patrols to curb tiger poaching in Indonesia, hire dogs to sniff out the illegal transport of saiga antelope horn, and implement additional law enforcement in Cambodia. 

This isn’t the first time that the African pouched rat has been utilized for its unique sense of smell: In the past, it’s been used to sniff out everything from land mines to tuberculosis in sputum samples.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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