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Rats Come to Aid of Fellow Mammals

60 Second Docs Animal Style introduced our readers to the wonders of African Giant Pouched rats, nicknamed HeroRATs by APOPO, the non-profit NGO that breeds and trains Cricetomys Gambianus — we’re talking rats, people! After mastering landmine detection, APOPO rats soon learned to detect tuberculosis, as well.

More recently, dedicated rat followers at The Guardian have reported on a detachment of HeroRATs “trained to sniff out trafficked pangolin parts in shipments heading from Africa to Asia.”

Little-known in the United States, the pangolin – a scaly anteater coveted by poachers – is the world’s most heavily trafficked mammal. Says The Guardian, “The meat of the pangolin is considered a delicacy in Vietnam and some parts of China, and its scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine. … Wildlife contraband is concealed among vast numbers of shipping containers that leave Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Mombasa in Kenya and other African ports every year.”

As are rats who detect landmines and tuberculosis, pangolin-sniffing rats receive click-and-reward training, which teaches them to associate “the gamey smell of pangolin scales with edible rewards.” Says The Guardian, “Later, the intensity of the pangolin smell will be reduced and other smells will be added to confuse the rats. The ultimate aim is to train the rodents to scratch or linger over the pangolin aroma for three seconds, tipping handlers to a possible find.”

While HeroRATs are working chiefly in Africa and Asia at present, The US Fish and Wildlife Service is keeping an eye on APOPO’s work. The hope is that rats may eventually be used to find hidden elephant ivory and rhino horn. The agency is investing $100,000 in what may prove to be “an innovative tool in combating illegal wildlife trade”.

You can learn more about HeroRATs, contribute to their training and mission, purchase rat swag, and even adopt or gift a HeroRAT at the APOPO website.

About the author

Brad Hall

Brad Hall

Brad Hall is a pastor and the author of "Lousy Roger and Other Tales: A collection of Lectionary-based Sermons," available on In 2014, after 27 years of courtship, he married pop culture scholar Deborah Ann Miller. They share a place with two dogs, Scotty and Demitasse, and two cats, Quirkie and Brucie.

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