Giant African pouched rats that grow to three feet long can't see well, but their keen sense of smell has already made them indispensable in the hunt for anything from tuberculosis in humans to buried TNT in former war zones (they've already found 1,500 land mines in Africa and Southeast Asia). Now the US Fish & Wildlife Service is directing a $100,000 grant toward a pilot project in Tanzania to help sniff out illegally trafficked pangolins, reports the Guardian. The rats are so smart they're being trained to not just find the species, but to then communicate the find to their human handlers.
The endangered pangolin is the most trafficked animal in the world, hunted for its meat and scales, which are considered medicinal in parts of Asia. Dan Ashe, director of the Fish & Wildlife Service, calls the approach "pioneering" and hopes the program will help "address the illegal wildlife trade in the places where it starts and where demand for wildlife products feeds the criminal supply chain." The giant rats—named for the large pouches in their cheeks—won't likely be sent to the US, reports Take Part, noting that the Gambian natives were once imported to the US as exotic pets, and wildlife officials are still trying to eradicate the skilled reproducers on one Florida island, where a pet breeder released a few into the wild in the 1990s. (Urban rats have a deadly new enemy.)