Imagine killing 55 million rats in a year - and still losing ground.
Vietnam’s vermin plague has gotten so bad that the central government has banned exports of traditional rat predators and closed down restaurants that specialize in serving up cats or snakes.
Some local government officials offer bounties for each tail brought in. Television, radio and newspapers encourage farmers and children alike to go out en masse and use smoke, dogs or digging to flush out rats and kill them.
A biological solution - a deadly rodent-specific bacteria dubbed “bio-rat” - is being produced to avoid reliance on dangerous poisons that can kill chickens, other animals and even small children.
Losses to Vietnam’s critical rice crop amounted to $6 million last year, said Dam Quoc Tru, deputy director general of the Plant Protection Department in the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.
The problem has grown quickly. Tru said 220,000 acres of rice paddies were infested in 1995. That rose to 640,000 acres in 1996 and 925,000 last year. In the first two months of 1998, more than 320,000 acres of the winter-spring crop already have been hit.
“If we don’t intervene, the damage could be $30 million a year,” Tru said. “Rat reproduction rates are very high and continuous.”
At least 55 million rats were killed last year.
“We cannot eradicate them, but if we can keep their numbers down, we can reduce the level of damage,” Tru said. “The Ministry of Health also is very concerned about rats spreading disease.”
Rats have become so prevalent that residents are increasingly blase about their appearances. They scamper brazenly across the cement-paved floors of Ben Thanh Market in the center of Ho Chi Minh City, scavenging food.
“The weather is hot, so the ants come out and the rats come out,” Vu An Thuy said as a foot-long rat did just that across her food stand. “We’re used to it, and the customers don’t complain, so it’s OK, although there do seem to be more of them in the past couple of weeks.”
Part of the increase has been attributed to diversification of crops that provide the rats with plenty of food year-round. But much of the blame is put on the shortage of cats, snakes and barn owls.
A stray cat is a rare sight in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. They either have been caught and served in local restaurants or sold by the thousands each day to China, where they are eaten, too. Black cats are also used in traditional medicines.
That has caused an imbalance in the ecosystem, Tru said.
“For long-term control, we need to encourage farmers to raise cats.”