Sav­ing the pan­golin one rat at a time

Lesotho Times - - Africa -

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.

— AP

In­fant rats in Moro­goro, Tan­za­nia, be­fore their train­ing to de­tect traf­ficked pan­golin parts and smug­gled hardwood tim­ber.

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