Order our new book, Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders
Mini book

The U.S. Has Hired Rats To Combat Wildlife Trafficking

It’s the latest coup for the talented African Pouched Rat, which is already busy sniffing out land mines and tuberculosis.

An African Pouched Rat, in training to find land mines in Tanzania.
An African Pouched Rat, in training to find land mines in Tanzania. © APOPO

There are a lot of amazing things about the African Pouched Rat. For one thing, they’re enormous—more cat-sized than rat sized, they’re about three feet long from tail to nose. For another, those noses are pretty wonderful. African Pouched Rats can’t see or hear very well, but they make up for it with a sense of smell at least as good as a dog’s.

They’re such good sniffers, in fact, that they’re now government contractors. The US Fish and Wildlife Service announced Friday that they’ve hired a group of the rats to fight wildlife trafficking, to the tune of $100,000.*

A pilot project in Tanzania, partially funded by the USFWS, aims to test whether the rats can identify shipments of illegal biological products by their smell. Wildlife products like pangolin skins and certain hardwoods are constantly crossing borders, often well-disguised. It is hoped that the rats will be able to cut through the olfactory noise and pinpoint which shipments aren’t supposed to go through.

These won’t be the first pouched rats to use their schnozzes for science. Earlier this year, NPR profiled a rat named Chewa, one of a whole Tanzanian rodent team that diagnoses tuberculosis by smelling sputum samples. They’re cheaper and faster than traditional lab tests, and more fun, too—“they jump on our shoulders,” one employee said. The same organization, called APOPO, also trains the rats to sniff out TNT, allowing them to scour former war zones for land mines.

If the trials go successfully, this will be “the first phase of a much larger project to mainstream rats as an innovative tool in combating illegal wildlife trade,” the US Fish and Wildlife Department writes. If you’re in the US and want to see an African Pouched Rat in action, you’ll have to head to Florida—a wild, invasive population has wreaked havoc there since the late 1990s, when they themselves were illegally released by a breeder. Their high-achieving foreign relatives must be so ashamed.

*In case it is unclear, the rats won’t be receiving this money—the project itself will. The rats are generally paid in room, board, and extra bananas.

Every day, we track down a fleeting wonder—something amazing that’s only happening right now. Have a tip for us? Tell us about it! Send your temporary miracles to [email protected].