Stop wildlife trafficking? Sounds like a job for Hero Rats.

They already help doctors detect tuberculosis. They’ve saved lives by helping to clear more than 100,000 land mines. Now, “Hero Rats” have a new mission: stopping the illegal wildlife trade.

Rat sniffing land mine (Xavier Rossi/APOPO)
(Xavier Rossi/APOPO)

Rats are better than humans — and even dogs — at sniffing out trouble. That’s why in Tanzania the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is enlisting the extraordinary noses of African giant pouched rats to investigate shipping containers for the scent of wildlife trafficking.

These special rodents are called Hero Rats by the nonprofit APOPO, which trains them. (APOPO is an acronym that means, in English, Anti-Personnel Landmines Removal Product Development, as the group first trained rats to detect land mines.)

Now, the rats are being trained to find pangolins, the world’s most trafficked mammal. This elusive, prehistoric-looking animal is threatened with extinction. Its keratin scales (made of the same material as our fingernails and hair) are often ground up and falsely advertised as medicine.

Pangolins, sometimes called “artichokes with legs,” earned the world’s highest trade protections in 2016.

Another target for the rats: illegally harvested timber. There’s a booming black market for wood used to make furniture, doors and flooring.

“Forests continue to dwindle at unprecedented rates in our region,” said Juma S. Mgoo of the Tanzania Forest Service. He says that new strategies, like the work of Hero Rats, are needed “or there will be nothing left for our children and their children to enjoy.”

Tanzania estimates it loses $8.3 million to smugglers of wood every year.

Rats to the rescue

Rat sniffing metal sphere on dirt pile (Theon Table/APOPO)
(Theon Table/APOPO)

The rats are well suited to jobs poking around shipping ports and export warehouses. Their small size makes them cheap and easy to transport, according to Adam Pires and Kirsty Brebner of the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

Training rats to detect certain smells can take up to nine months. Fish and Wildlife officials hope the rats will be ready for their new job by the end of 2017.