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Rats have acquired a rather bad reputation over the years. Even Sir David Attenborough admits he’s not a fan. Widely unappreciated, these animals have greatly contributed to human wellbeing throughout history. From biomedical research and early disease detection to locating unexploded landmines, the input of some rats has earned them the title of true heroes. One of which has not gone unnoticed, as one especially effective rat received a medal for his duty from British veterinary charity PDSA.
Their super sense of smell allows them to distinguish the faintest of scents, while their small, light and agile body enables them to navigate environments inaccessible or otherwise dangerous to other animals and humans. This incredible performance has been achieved thanks to an innovative project run by APOPO, an organisation devoted to saving lives. The effectiveness of their clever rat pupils has grabbed the attention of influential conservation charities, who along with APOPO, have designed a new pilot project. In this new undertaking, rats are using their unique abilities to help tackle the issue of pangolin trafficking.
Not many people have heard of pangolins. These scaly anteaters are sadly the world’s most trafficked mammals. Their meat is considered a delicacy across South East Asia and their scales are used in Chinese medicine products, despite having no proven scientific effect. APOPO’s rats are being trained to detect the scent of pangolin scales. These hero rats will be deployed at airports and seaports to scour for illegal wildlife parts. Thanks to their size advantage they will be able to access small spaces, such as tightly packed shipping containers much more easily than humans or sniffer dogs. Increased detection will hopefully lead to increased prosecution which will deter future poachers from decimating the pangolin population.