Kirsty Brebner, whose organisation Endangered Wildlife Trust had the idea of putting rats to work on the illegal wildlife trade, disclosed this on Friday in Nairobi.
She said the U.S. financed project was still in its early stages, but the rats that would be trained to scuttle over shipping containers in search of pangolin scales were only born in October.
Brebner said the aim was to prove by late 2017, that their powerful sense of smell could distinguish the illegally traded items.
She said the items would be detected, even if they were stashed in coffee or other scent-masking substances in containers before they were loaded onto ships for export.
“I firmly believe that we are going to be able to prove that they can.
“They are clearly trainable, they have a strong sense of smell, the eventual aim is to train rats to find ivory and rhino horns too,’’ she said.
Brebner said the giant rats were chosen for the project for their longevity because they live as long as eight years.
She added that it would give a better return on the training investment and they don’t bond easily with handlers, so they would adapt to whoever uses them.
Brebner disclosed that the Endangered Wildlife Trust had long used dogs to trace wildlife trophies, but rats could scramble into small, dark places and could climb up containers.
The official said pangolins, a mammal hunted close to extinction for the unique scales on its body, which find a ready market in Asia, were the first target.
“The rats were tested and trained by APOPO, a Tanzanian-based group that pioneered the use of the African Giant Pouched Rat to find landmines.”
James Pursey, the Head of APOPO, said the rats would first be trained to sniff out a substance in return for a reward.
He said the rats would then be taught to discriminate pangolins from other smells, a process likely to last until mid-July.
“We will then be developing the optimal method for how to actually test the shipping containers,” he said.
Pursey said if they succeeded, the project could be rolled out from late 2017.