Saving the pangolin one rat at a time
JOHANNESBURG — The pangolin — the world’s most heavily trafficked mammal – might have a new champion: rats that will be trained to sniff out trafficked pangolin parts in shipments heading from Africa to Asia.
Ten to 15 African giant pouched rats are being reared in Tanzania to detect pungent pangolin remains as well as smuggled hardwood timber. They are just a few weeks old and most are still with their mothers.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service is keen on the trial, which organisers hope can eventually be used to find hidden elephant ivory and rhino horn. The agency has provided $100,000 to support what it says could be “an innovative tool in combating illegal wildlife trade”.
The meat of the pangolin – a scaly anteater coveted by poachers – 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 leave Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Mombasa in Kenya and other African ports every year.
Yet Apopo, a non-profit group based in Tanzania, already harnesses the rats’ keen sense of smell to find mines and other explosive material on old battlefields in Angola, Mozambique and, more recently, Cambodia. The organisation also uses rats to detect tuberculosis in sputum samples of patients in Tanzania and Mozambique.
The rats in the conservation project will start “socialisation training,” which means being carried around on people’s shoulders and in their pockets, being driven around and generally getting used to sights and sounds, Apopo spokesman James 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 gamey 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.
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 send rats with leashes and harnesses into hard-to-reach areas, potentially with small cameras attached to their backs, said Kirsty Brebner of the Endangered Wildlife Trust.
If the training goes well, it could still be another year or so before the rats finally get to work. They’ll stick to cargo perusal rather than, for example, checking out people’s luggage in airports. Travellers, Pursey of Apopo said, wouldn’t be “particularly enamored” to have vermin crawling on their belongings.
Infant rats in Morogoro, Tanzania, before their training to detect trafficked pangolin parts and smuggled hardwood timber.