Training African giant pouched rats to detect illegally trafficked wildlife

Published: 01 December 2023
Last edited: 01 December 2023
remove_red_eye 1112 Views


APOPO, a Belgian NGO headquartered in Morogoro, Tanzania, trains African giant pouched rats, Cricetomys ansorgei, for scent detection purposes. Over the past 25 years, APOPO has successfully deployed rats in former conflict zones to use their incredible sense of smell for the detection of landmines and other explosives. In addition, these 'HeroRATs' also help detect tuberculosis in patient samples. Building on this knowledge, our solution is to train HeroRATs to detect illegally trafficked wildlife in shipping containers and other applicable environments. 


East and South Africa
Scale of implementation
Grassland ecosystems
Temperate grassland, savanna, shrubland
Tropical grassland, savanna, shrubland
Connectivity / transboundary conservation
Health and human wellbeing
One Health
Peace and human security
Poaching and environmental crime
Science and research
World Heritage
Land and Forest degradation
Loss of Biodiversity
Conflicting uses / cumulative impacts
Ecosystem loss
Poor monitoring and enforcement
Unemployment / poverty
Sustainable development goals
SDG 15 – Life on land
SDG 16 – Peace, justice and strong institutions


Morogoro, Tanzania


Cost-efficient methods and solutions are required to address challenges such as landmines and tuberculosis, which often occur in Global South countries where financial resources are limited. Deploying scent detection rats offers such a solution. Further, compared to scent detection dogs, rats readily work with any skilled handler, are more cost-efficient to house and maintain, and have a similar working life span.

Similarly, rats address a range of challenges such as being able to navigate smaller spaces than dogs, being native to tropical climates, and having fewer cultural restrictions when being handled closely by humans. Our HeroRATs also address economic challenges in ports where the screening of goods must be cost-efficient and rapid as well as for countries whose economies are affected by the illegal wildlife trade through loss of their natural heritage. In addition, such trade is closely linked to the trafficking of humans, weapons, and drugs. 


Ports, the shipping industry, and governments. Employees. Biodiversity. Eco-tourism. Countries' economies. Global climate, human population, and health. 

How do the building blocks interact?

APOPO, building on 25 years of experience, develops and implements rat training plans. These not only optimize rat performance and results, but also prepare rat trainers for deployment in operational settings. 

Internally accredited rats and their handlers are then deployed at applicable sites, which is substantially supported by our partners.

Funding partners support rat training, development of new programs, and running costs along with operational deployment. Often, separate parts of this process are covered by separate funding sources. The same applies for supporting partners. For example, wildlife detection rat training has been funded by a wide range of donors over the years, whilst the Sokoine University of Agriculture and Tanzanian Wildlife Management Authority have provided support in the form of training areas and samples. 


To date, APOPO's HeroRATs have detected over 155,744 landmines and other explosives, and an additional 27,059 cases of tuberculosis that were initially missed by their clinics. These numbers relate to 2,193,278 people freed from the terror of landmines and 272,888 potential tuberculosis infections halted. Our new avenue of wildlife detection research will serve as an additional screening tool to detect illegally trafficked wildlife, deter traffickers, and, in turn promote healthy habitats with thriving biodiversity. The illegal wildlife trade not only affects the species poached and trafficked but also biodiversity, eco-tourism, and hence national economies, the global climate, and health. As such, developing innovative, cost-efficient tools to fight this illegal wildlife trade will have far-reaching global impacts. 



On an early spring morning in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, HeroRAT Kalani is woken up by her handler, Neema. Kalani is not just any rat, but a specially trained scent detection HeroRAT who can identify the scents of commonly trafficked wildlife, such as the scales of the world's only scaly, and highly endangered, mammal - the pangolin. Neema puts a custom-made vest on Kalani, which has a small ball at the chest. When Kalani detects the scent of pangolin scales, she pulls this ball which then emits a beep, telling Neema that she has found the target. As a reward, Neema gives Kalani a tasty mixture of avocado, banana, and rodent pellets. 

Kalani was trained at APOPO's training field in Morogoro, Tanzania, to search for wildlife products in a range of settings. Because the illegal wildlife trade moves a high volume of product through maritime routes using shipping containers, APOPO has trained a set of highly skilled rats to find commonly trafficked wildlife species. Because of their relatively small size they can search either inside opened containers, where they can easilty fit into tight spaces, in warehouses whilst tethered to a long leash, or be lifted up high to screen individual items and the vents of sealed shipping containers from the outside. 

Today is a test: Kalani is no longer at APOPO's training field. Instead, she has been training at the seaport of Dar es Salaam for four weeks. A government officer from TAWA (Tanzanian Wildlife Management Authority) has planted wildlife samples as well as a range of other samples (like coffee beans, washing powder, and plastic) inside a warehouse at the port. Kalani searches the warehouse while tethered to the long leash, only relying on her excellent sense of smell to assess her environment. Neema, her handler, does not know which samples have been planted where. 

Within just ten minutes of searching, Kalani finds both wildlife samples and repeatedly indicates them to Neema by pulling the ball on her vest. She passes her test with flying colours!

HeroRATs like Kalani are being trained as cost-efficient and complimentary assets in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade.  

Contributed by

isabelle.szott_43102's picture

Isabelle Szott Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling (APOPO)