Giant pouched rats drafted in to save worlds most trafficked mammal

A small group of giant pouched rats (genus Cricetomys) are being trained in Tanzania to sniff out pangolin remains in shipments bound for Asia. The project which is being led by the Endangered Wildlife Trust and supported by the US Fish and Wildlife service and hopes to see rats sourcing illegally trafficked pangolin remains and eventually poached elephant ivory and rhino horns.

The rats are undergoing specialised training designed to get them used to travelling with people and identifying different smells. A simple positive reinforcement technique will be employed in order to train the rats, which are thought to be capable of reaching parts of containers that are currently inaccessible to dogs.  The rats have already shown their potential as effective sniffers, being used by a non-profit Tanzanian group named Apopo to identify mines and explosive material alongside tuberculosis from saliva samples. Alongside a keen sense of smell, these rats exhibit a high degree of agility that would enable them to access container vents where the smell may be most strong. It has been suggested that rats could also be fitted with small cameras to help identify any illegal products.

The 8 species of pangolin surviving in Africa and Asia remain highly endangered due to the illegal wildlife trade. These scaly ant eaters are hunted for their meat which is considered to be a delicacy in parts of Asia and also their scales which are used in traditional Chinese medicine.  For now, this promising conservation project gives a dash of hope to these unique animals which are so sadly on the brink of extinction.

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Jess Webster

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