Giant rats sniff out wildlife traffickers

WASHINGTON — Police dogs have been used to sniff out bombs and drugs. Now, rats could be the latest weapon in the battle against wildlife trafficking.

“They have a very, very sensitive sense of smell,” said  Daphne Carlson-Bremer, programming officer for combating wildlife trafficking at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service International Affairs.

The African giant pouched rat has successfully sniffed out land mines and tuberculosis, but now the rodents are being tested to fight against wildlife trafficking, which is a multi-billion dollar industry.

Carlson-Bremer said these rats are being tested to detect pangolins, one of the most trafficked mammals in the world.

Pangolins (photos here), Carlson-Bremer said, are scaly mammals that look like a cross between an anteater and an armadillo. The animals come from Africa and Asia. They are poached for their scales and meat. Their scales are used for medicinal purposes, and their meat is seen as a delicacy in some parts of the world.

She said the meat is served at high-end restaurants, and they are now seen as an luxury good by some populations.

The illegal wildlife trade uses the shipping containers to move their merchandise, especially since they are hard to search, Carlson-Bremer said. Because of the enormous number of shipping containers from all over the world, the containers bypass normal inspection methods such as X-ray or physical inspection.

“This approach could potentially address a real major gap in our ability to combat wildlife trafficking in shipping containers,” Carlson-Bremer said.

Carlson-Bremer said the African giant pouched rat project is one of 12 new projects the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is supporting through its Combating Wildlife Trafficking Program. She said if the rats are successful in detecting pangolins, that the use of the rats could be expanded.

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