How Giant Rats Could Help Stop Wildlife Trafficking

A pilot program in Tanzania is studying the enormous African giant pouched rat to see if it can help catch pangolin smugglers in the act.

Pangolins may soon have a new best friend: the African giant pouched rat, which is being evaluated in Tanzania as a potential sniffer cop in the battle against illegal wildlife traffic.

In a testing program funded through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), a group of the rats will be tested for their ability to sniff out pangolins. The hope is that the rodents will one day work in shipping ports, where they will pick up the scent of pangolins concealed in shipping containers and signal the find to inspectors.

Pangolins, though a newly protected species, are among the globe's most heavily trafficked mammals. They're hunted for their meat, which is considered a delicacy in some corners. Meanwhile their scales, when ground up, are claimed in parts of Asia to have medicinal value for various ailments, including cancer.

The rats in line for the job are huge. African giant pouched rats can stretch to three feet long, including the tail. Among the largest rodents on the planet, the animal makes up for having lousy eyesight by possessing a superior sense of smell.

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What's more, the rat is no stranger to snagging a job thanks to its nose. It has been employed to sniff out landmines in Cambodia and even tuberculosis in Mozambique.

The rat-pangolin program is part of a larger push by the U.S. government to fight wildlife poaching and trafficking, with the FWS funneling more than $1 million in grant money to a dozen anti-trafficking projects in 11 countries. Pangolin protection features prominently in the grants, and multiple projects are underway in China, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The testing in Tanzania - for now restricted to a laboratory - will focus on testing the rats to see how well they can detect pangolin skin and scales inside shipping containers. If they succeed, researchers will then try to figure out how inspection agents on site can be tipped off that the rats have detected something illegal.

Top Photo: A mine detection rat is given banana as a reward after successfully identifying an inactive mine on July 2, 2015 in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Credit: Taylor Weidman/Getty Images WATCH VIDEO: Rats Can Read Minds