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RT Vol. 8, No. 4 When rats attack

RT Vol. 8, No. 4 When rats attack

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Published by Rice Today
irri

When rats attack
by Trina Leah Mendoza

Community members band together to prevent hungry rats from eating their crops

famine broke out in India’s northeastern state of Mizoram in 1958-59. It reportedly took more than 10,000 lives and caused severe sociopolitical conflicts. This led to the Mizoram Uprising in 1966, which was followed by a 20-year armed revolt against the central Indian authority. The struggle ended only in 1986 with the signing of a peace accord. What started the famine?
irri

When rats attack
by Trina Leah Mendoza

Community members band together to prevent hungry rats from eating their crops

famine broke out in India’s northeastern state of Mizoram in 1958-59. It reportedly took more than 10,000 lives and caused severe sociopolitical conflicts. This led to the Mizoram Uprising in 1966, which was followed by a 20-year armed revolt against the central Indian authority. The struggle ended only in 1986 with the signing of a peace accord. What started the famine?

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Published by: Rice Today on May 24, 2012
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irri

When rats attack
by Trina Leah Mendoza

Community members band together to prevent hungry rats from eating their crops

famine broke out in India’s northeastern state of Mizoram in 1958-59. It reportedly took more than 10,000 lives and caused severe sociopolitical conflicts. This led to the Mizoram Uprising in 1966, which was followed by a 20-year armed revolt against the central Indian authority. The struggle ended only in 1986 with the signing of a peace accord. What started the famine? The answer lies in the startling increase in rodent populations after the rare phenomenon of bamboo flowering occurred. “Rodents are major pests in agricultural production,” says Grant Singleton, IRRI rodent expert and coordinator of the International Rice Research Institute’s (IRRI) Irrigated Rice Research Consortium. “In Asia, rodents cause, on average, annual preharvest losses of 5–10% in rice crops. A loss of 6% is substantial, as this is enough rice to feed 225 million people for a year.” However, rare rat population outbreaks can cause severe crop losses, especially in the uplands, where such losses can lead to major food shortages. Since 2005, such cases have been reported in Mizoram (eastern India), Chittagong Hill Tracts (Bangladesh), Chin State (Myanmar), and the provinces of Oudomxay, Luang Namtha, Sayaboury, and Luang Prabang (Lao PDR). These infestations often happen after an expansive bamboo flowering takes place. Also known as mautam, rattadas, or nuu khii, this rare phenomenon occurs in the Bengal
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Bay ecoregion (India, Myanmar, Bangladesh), in northern Laos, and in other parts of the world where bamboo grows, including Peru and Argentina in South America.

Damage and disease in the Chittagong Hill Tracts

In November Rats chewed up most of the rice at the center of the field in Banaue, Philippines. 2008, a team of researchers led by enough, the rats also invaded people’s Dr. Steven Belmain, a rodent ecology and management expert from the Natural houses, ate stored food, destroyed personal possessions, and even bit people Resources Institute (NRI), University while they slept. Increased dysentery of Greenwich in the United Kingdom, and cases of fever with unknown causes submitted a scientific assessment report were also reported in the affected areas. to the United Nations Development Although it has not yet been clinically Programme on rodent outbreaks confirmed, these illnesses were believed following bamboo flowering and their to have been caused by rodent-borne impact in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. diseases. According to the findings, the More rat outbreaks are expected to dominant bamboo species in the region occur in many parts of the Hill Tracts in flower on a 40- to 50-year cycle. Rats 2009 and 2010. To mitigate the damage, devoured large quantities of bamboo the NRI researchers proposed to the seed, fueling their reproductive rate. Bangladeshi government a strategy As soon as they finished eating up the that includes community training and bamboo seed supply, they moved out capacity building, ecosystem research, into the agricultural fields and rural communities and searched for more food. and publicity and an awareness campaign. The damage these rats caused was far more serious than losing a few stored rice sacks. The communities suffered The worst outbreak in 20 years damage 4–5 times greater than that seen The worst rat outbreak in 20 years in the floodplains of Bangladesh. As if occurred in April 2008 in northern Laos. destroying nearly all field crops was not Farmers in the uplands lost most of their
Rice Today October-December 2009

grant singleton (2)

rice, maize, and other important cash crops. More than 500 villages with 250,000 people possibly affected turned to the World Food Programme (WFP) for assistance. The WFP then conducted an emergency food security assessment in March 2009 to measure the impact of the outbreak and the extent of the damage. The study learned that nine districts across Boy eyes rat meat in Pyay, one of four provinces lost more the many markets in Myanmar that sell the rodent as food. than 50% of their expected harvest because of rat outbreaks, and other northern provinces Paletwa, north of Chin State, in 2007. were likely to be severely affected as Caused by the Rattus rattus species, well. In fact, 100% rice losses were outbreaks erupted 2 months after bamboo common. Upland farmers in most areas flowering. believed that the outbreaks were due to During the outbreak season, the bamboo flowering. extension staff from the Myanma Moreover, rats brought food Agriculture Service (MAS) conducted a insecurity to 85,000–140,000 people rodent control campaign in 28 villages. and caused families to eat only one Farmers used different ways to prevent or two meals a day. The villages that further rat damage, such as setting local traps, and driving them away with a suffered the most were the non-Lao Tai barrage of noise. “However, the farmers villages that relied mostly on upland did not do them as a community, as it farming, were far away from markets, should be,” says Ms. Htwe. “They control had poor road access, had fewer rats by using different kinds of local traps labor opportunities, and had limited only when they see damage in the field, access to natural resources. The rat and they rely mainly on rat hunters.” outbreaks came as an additional shock According to MAS, Paletwa and an unwanted blow to their already regularly imports 6,135 tons of rice from challenged livelihood. According to its neighboring district, Rakhine. In 2008, the WFP’s assessment, food insecurity however, they needed to import about will even intensify when the 2009 rainy 1,200 tons more because of rat damage. season sets in. The local government also arranged to buy surplus amounts of rice to sell Invading Chin State in Myanmar to farmers at the base price, but most Chin State is located in western farmers did not have money to buy them. Myanmar, surrounded by the Chittagong Alarmingly, there were new reports Hill Tracts, and Mizoram. Like their in September 2009 of rodent outbreaks neighboring countries, the people of in Palatwa Township, Chin State, Chin depend on upland rice cultivation and Kyauktaw Township, northern for their daily calories. Unfortunately, they also share the problem of rising rat Rakhine State (Arakan). MAS said that populations after bamboo flowering. rodent damage to upland rice started in Nyo Me Htwe, a doctoral rodent August 2009 following massive bamboo ecology student and IRRI scholar, flowering, similar to the 2007 and 2008 studied the impacts of rodent outbreaks occurrences. throughout Chin State in 2007-08, which were believed to be the most serious in Working and learning together 50 years. Rodent outbreaks are not confined to According to Ms. Htwe, rat the upland regions. This year, high outbreaks occurred in 30 villages in crop losses because of rats were also
Rice Today October-December 2009

reported in the Philippines and Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia. These, however, were not related to bamboo flowering but to the asynchrony of rice planting in the irrigated lowlands. Such patchy outbreaks occur too often in the intensive lowland rice agroecosystems. Unfortunately, there is little documentation of the factors leading to these outbreaks, their impacts, and the successes and failures of management action. IRRI believes it crucial to conduct an international conference on the impacts of rodent outbreaks on food security in Asia. Scheduled for 26-28 October, the conference will document the evidence and impact of rodent infestations and to develop a framework for research on rodent management in the agricultural systems of Asia. Participants will review the impact of ecologically based rodent management in both lowland and upland rice environments in Southeast Asia and develop follow-up activities that include forging partnerships with the public and private sector (e.g., civil society groups and nongovernment organizations). Plenary presenters will include Dr. Belmain, Ms. Htwe, Dr. Singleton, Dr. Ken Aplin (Mizoram), Dr. Bounneung Douangboupha (Laos), and Dr. Sudarmaji (Indonesia). “Historically, there are records dating back to the 1750s of these rodent explosions that have led to devastating food shortages in eastern India, western Myanmar, and southeastern Bangladesh,” says Dr. Singleton. “However, there is little information documented about what species are involved, what methods proved effective in holding the hordes of rats at bay, or when these outbreaks will happen. What has surprised the rodent experts is that, over the past 4 years, the outbreaks have been blinking in and blinking out. It is not just one tidal wave of rodents. Instead, it is a gradual wave sweeping through the region. There is so much we need to share and document so that we can be better prepared in the future to fight these waves of starvation.”
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