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How Giant Rats Could Stop Illegal Wildlife Trade From Squeaking By

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently awarded grants for some innovative ways to combat wildlife trade

(APOPO/USFWS)
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The ivory trade is devastating elephant populations and poaching has pushed rhinoceros species to the brink of extinction. But those are not the only species under threat by the multi-billion dollar illegal trade in wildlife. Tigers are targeted for their “medicinal” properties; pangolins, a type of scaled anteater, are imported to Asia by the ton because they are considered delicacy. The gall bladder from a grizzly bear can command $10,000 on the black market.

Poachers and smugglers have gotten sneaky in the ways they smuggle animals across borders (though the Chinese man who tried to smuggle a tortoise onto a plane by pretending it was hamburger gets first prize). That’s one reason the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service awards grants to innovative projects designed to halt the wildlife trade. This year, the agency is giving $1.2 million dollars to 11 projects in 12 countries.

“These grants provide much-needed resources to support projects on the ground where wildlife trafficking is devastating some of Earth’s most cherished and most unusual species,” USFWS director Dan Ashe says in the press release. “These grant recipients are using pioneering approaches to address the illegal wildlife trade in the places where it starts and where demand for wildlife products feeds the criminal supply chain of illegal goods.”

Among the recipients are projects to train patrols to combat tiger poachers in Indonesia and another to train sniffer dogs to detect the horns of saiga, an endangered antelope species, in Kazakhstan. Several of the grants are going to projects aimed at reducing the demand for pangolins in China, Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

But the most innovative program, or at least the strangest, is a $100,000 project in Tanzania to train African pouched rats to sniff out smuggled pangolins and illegal hardwoods, reports Oliver Milan at The Guardian. The three-foot long rats have an excellent sense of smell and were previously taught to sniff out landmines by Dutch product designer Bart Weetjens. Rats from his organization APOPO have also helped doctors sniff out 5,000 cases of tuberculosis form saliva samples. Now they are being trained to do the same with pangolins, certain woods and eventually other species.

According to a project description, this initial test is just the first step in a larger project to “mainstream the rats as an innovative tool in combating the illegal wildlife trade.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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