Giant pouched rats to assist law enforcement

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Rats are no strangers to harbours and ships, and are often regarded as vermin due to their destructive nature. However, trained African giant pouched rats (Cricetomys ansorgei) could be instrumental in saving endangered species bound for the illegal wildlife trade.

Ten giant rats are being trained by APOPO, a Belgian non-profit organisation that trains rats to not only save lives, but to sniff out pangolin scales and African hardwoods in shipping containers.

Sketch by Graham Kearney

“We are continually looking for new and novel ways to prevent wildlife crimes. Weare also very aware of the challenges that law enforcement agencies face indetecting wildlife contraband, especially in the challenging port environment,”says Dr Kelly Marnewick, senior trade officer at the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

Referred to as a HeroRAT, these rodents are fast: in under 20 minutes, a HeroRAT can achieve what a human would accomplish in a day. They are also able to access smaller spaces than a dog. However, this particular project is still in its proof-of-concept phase.

One of the challenges has been access to pangolin scales for training. Scales are tightly regulated and it has been challenging to acquire samples from all four African species of pangolin. “Whether or not the different species smell noticeably different to the rat is a question we intend to answer in the future,” says Dr Cindy Fast, head of training and behavioural research at APOPO.

APOPO currently has 45 HeroRATS deployed for landmine detection in Angola and Cambodia, a further 38 successfully contributing to tuberculosis research in African countries, and another 10 successfully participating in this wildlife detection project.

Rats need approximately nine months of training. “As with dogs trained for landmine detection, the rats must also meet national and international standards through external accreditation before they can be operationally deployed,” explains Fast. Basic socialisation begins at four weeks old. There are some benefits to using these African rats over dogs: firstly, the rats are well adapted to the sub-Saharan environment. “Their compact size and mobility make them more conducive to working in some environments, such as tight shipping containers,” says Fast. Plus, the rats don’t have preference for an individual person, which allows them to rotate handlers in the field.

This project is funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund of the UK. 

Written by Georgina Lockwood

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