This is a story about rats, but before you recoil in disgust, consider this: Giant pouched rats are heroes in Africa. They have been helping to find hidden land mines in former war zones for 20 years and they have also been trained to detect tuberculosis in humans, improving TB detection rates by 40 percent. Now these two-foot-long (.6 m) rodents are being taught how to save the pangolin, an endangered anteater that is being poached and smuggled out of Africa by the thousands, in order to be used in bogus medical treatments. These rats can detect the smell of pangolin body parts, and may soon be deployed at ports and along highways to nab traffickers.
Rats! Foiled again:
- Demand for pangolins is so great that conservation groups say their populations in Africa and Asia have dropped by 90 percent in the past decade.
- The smugglers often pack dried pangolin scales with other pungent products, such as coffee and wax, in order to throw off detection dogs, but the rats don’t fall for this type of concealment.
- The African giant pouched rats are also learning to detect ebony wood, which is illegally logged in Madagascar. Researchers hope they can eventually be used to detect smuggled rhino horns, elephant tusks, and lion bones.