Rats now trained to prevent smuggling

Trainers of the African pouched rats busy in their work at the Sokoine University of Agriculture based in Morogoro, Tanzania. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • The initiative is undertaken by a Belgiau-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Apopo in collaboration with the Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA).

Dar es Salaam. Tanzania has started training African pouched rats to detect wildlife and trophies that are in the process of being smuggled outside the country.

The initiative is undertaken by a Belgiau-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Apopo in collaboration with the Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA).

It also aims to prevent wildlife and products smuggling inside the country.

Speaking to The Citizen during a recent visit to Apopo headquarters in Morogoro, the organisation’s researcher, Mr Walter Simon said incidents of smuggling of live wildlife and trophies negatively impacted the country’s economy.

“The technology is intended to reduce smuggling out of live animals including pangolins and their respective trophies. This aims at strengthening the country’s economy,” he said.

He said graduated African pouched rats will be dispatched to different entry and exit points in the country including ports, airports and borders.

“The first batch of African pouched rats receiving training will graduate at the end of this year. They will then be deployed for the job,” he said.

Furthermore, he said live animal smuggling could be at the centre of wildlife linked diseases affecting human beings such as Ebola, stressing intensifying the war was significant.

How the rats are trained

According to Mr Simon, after male and female domestic African pouched rats have bred, the young animals are passed through training stages.

The training includes socialization where the pups after four to five weeks of birth are introduced to sights, sounds, smells and noises in order to make them adapt to trainers and training environment.

“At around 10 weeks, the pups will be subjected to the basic clicker training. The training will include enabling the pups to hear clickers followed by provision of rewards which is normally tasty food,” he said.

Mr Simon said this stage of the training aims to enable the pups to get associated with the sound of clickers and food.

“The rats are also motivated to search for target scents and those who give accurate indications are rewarded,” he said.

Furthermore, he said the pups then proceed for the scent discrimination training aimed at enabling them to differentiate the smell they meet every day and that of scent targets.

“Here the smell of the target includes those of wildlife and trophies. Whenever, they successfully give accurate indications to target scents, then they are rewarded,” he said.

He said the rats are trained to wear the vests and pull the balls that produce a certain voice as means of informing the trainer that the pup has correctly identified the target.

“The rats are then taken to a container that constitutes different items including the targets. They will move around until when they correctly identify the target,” he said.

“Upon finding the target, the rat will pull down the ball giving information to the handler. In turn the trainer will blow the clicker being the response that it has correctly identified the target,” according to him.

Training the rats to identify targets in closed containers like drums, the rats are trained to sniff and discriminate smells put inside the cylinders through holes made.

“The barrels have holes in either side with those hosting target samples bearing indications at the top. Once the rats make successful indications, they are given rewards in order to motivate them to correctly make indications,” said Mr Simon. Things you didn’t know about rats


According to Apopo officials, rats are very smart who would often clean themselves whenever they think they have been dirty and would like to live in a clean environment.


They also said rats are very intelligent who quickly understand training given to them.

“Trainers are supposed to be careful because at certain instances they will cheat by scratching the soil or pulling the ball as if they have found the target so that they are rewarded,” he said.


Apopo communications manager, Ms Lily Shallom said rats have their own means of communication that cannot be understood by man.

“There was a time I installed a camera on a place hosting the rats. I discovered interesting things during the preview including the way rats communicate,” she said.

Food balance

During the training Mr Simon said rats need to have food balance in order to give good results.

“They shouldn’t be hungry or full bellies for them to provide best results. This is because their accuracy is linked to food motivation they get,” he said.