Rodents enlisted in fight to sniff out trafficked pangolins
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 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. Crawford Allan,
The US Fish and Wildlife Service, however, is on board with the rodent trial, which organizers hope can eventually be used to find hidden elephant ivory and rhino horn. The US citizen agency has provided $100,000 to support what it says could be “an innovative tool in combating illegal wildlife trade”.
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 other parts of Asia, and its scales are used in traditional medicine.
Wildlife contraband is concealed among vast numbers of shipping containers leaving ports in Africa.
Yet APOPO, a nonprofit group based in Tanzania, already harnesses the rats’ keen sense of smell to find mines and other explosive material on old battlefields in Africa and Cambodia.
The organization also uses rats to detect tuberculosis in samples of patients.
The rats in the conservation project will start “socialization training”, which means being carried around on people’s shouldersandin theirpockets, being driven around and generally getting used to sights and sounds, APOPO spokesmanJames Pursey said.
Then comes “click and reward” training in which the rats are fed a treat whenever they hear a clicking sound, and they’ll eventually learn to link the smell of pangolin scales with edible rewards. Later, the intensity of the pangolin smell will be reduced and other smells will be added to confuse the rats.
The ultimate aim is to train the rodents to scratch or linger over the pangolin or hardwood aroma for three seconds, tipping handlers to a possible find.
APOPO is confident it can get rats to discriminate between a pangolin scent and other smells, and “the challenge is going to be how the rats actually test the containers,” Pursey said.
Handlers can dispatch rats with leashes and harnesses into hard-to-reach areas, but then“howaretheygoingtotell us that they’ve found something?” said Kirsty Brebner of theEndangeredWildlifeTrust, a South African group that is leading the project.
One option being considered is to install small cameras onthebacksoftherats, anidea that has been discussed for the detection of people trapped in collapsed buildings after an earthquake or bombing.
There have been successful tests using dogs and air-filtering technology to detect wildlife contraband.
But, said Crawford Allan, a leader ofananti-wildlifecrime initiative: “Dogs need a lot of care and we won’t risk them crawling into tight spaces where they could be injured, so bringing in a conservation “pied piper” and a squad of rats could help in those circumstances where they can move freely, with low risk in more cramped conditions inside shipping containers or on the back of trucks etc.”
Dogs need a lot of care and we won’t risk them crawling into tight spaces.” leader of anti-wildlife crime initiative Hot air balloons take to the sky during the International Balloon Festival at the Metropolitan Park in Leon in Mexico’s Guanajuato state on Sunday.
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A pair of young African giant pouched rats will soon begin training to detect trafficked pangolins in the pilot project.