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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Of mice and men: the Svay Rieng rat hunt

Of mice and men: the Svay Rieng rat hunt

C HEA SEY, SVAY RIENG - Norng Sanghorn aims his sling-shot and fires off stones at

frightened rats scurrying through the bushes. He misses time and time again, before

finally hitting his mark: a rat topples off a bamboo branch to the ground. Sanghorn,

trading his sling-shot for a spear, moves in for the kill.

With a laugh, he raises his trophy, lanced through the head, into the air. Other

villagers momentarily stop to have a look, before resuming the hunt.

"It is difficult to find rats and kill them," says Sanghorn, 38. "They

are very clever at hiding themselves and are also nasty - when I catch them alive

they bite me," he says, displaying his hands scarred with rat bites.

Difficult it may be, but when the rats are as plentiful as this, persistence pays

off.

"I kill 200 rats a day in the bushes, on the trees and in the caves with my

sling-shot or spear," says Sanghorn.

The great rat chase of Svay Rieng is in full cry. Along with the recent flooding

which devastated much of the province came another menace: the rat plague.

Villagers and local officials claim the rats came from Vietnam, washed from higher

land with flood waters which swept into Cambodia. Hundreds of thousands of the furry

migrants - they are reputedly good swimmers - traveled down Vietnam's Veyko river

into Svay Rieng, they say.

The scourge is worst in villages neighboring the Vietnamese border, particularly

Kompong Ro, Chamlang and Chambak communes, where villagers' rice crops faced the

fury of the floods, and then the rats.

Local officials say 4,900 hectares of crops have been devastated by rats alone -

not including flood damage - with some 6,000 tons of rice lost in about five of the

worst-hit villages.

Toch Sak, the province's second deputy governor, says the calamity is worsened by

the lack of snakes, a natural predator of rats. Snake numbers have been depleted

over the years by local villagers catching them to sell to Vietnamese people, he

says.

To fight the infestation, war was declared on the pests in a 25-day rat hunt which

began Nov 8, organized by local officials and NGOs.

In exchange for 4kg of rice each day from international organizations, several thousand

men, women and children became rat-catchers. Armed with spears, sling-shots, sticks,

hoes, traps and their bare hands, they were briefed on their mission and let loose

on the unsuspecting rodents.

Averaging about 10,000 rats a day in the five worst-hit villages, the villagers hunt

in packs, scouring rice fields, bamboo trees and caves.

As well as trying to prevent further crop losses, an added bonus for some is that

they catch themselves dinner at the same time.

"It is tasty, more tasty than some other meats," says Sok Tim, head of

the agricultural office of Svay Chrum district, of rat flesh.

He explains that some villagers have developed quite a taste for rat meat, particularly

when washed down with a drop of rice or toad wine.

Others who have eaten the delicacy say it has a strong, gamy flavor, much like rabbit.

At Chea Sey village, few people will admit they eat them.

Twelve-year-old Chheng Bopha, clutching a cluster of rats by their tails, shyly giggled

when asked what she would do with them.

"Most people here eat rats, but not me," said one woman. "I'm scared

of them."

Those who don't like the taste can sell their catches to neighboring Vietnamese villagers

for 500 riels a kilo.

Villagers say the best time to stalk rats is at night, when they venture out to forage

for food.

The locals talk of "King Rats" who lead their "troops" out to

rice fields to look for food.

Prum Tien says that, while tending cattle in Vietnam two years ago, he saw a King

Rat leading thousands of rats through the fields. In Chea Sey, an apocryphal tale

is told of a King Rat - as big as a piglet, with a star-shaped patch on its head

(the yellow star of Vietnam?) - which was spotted last year.

"If I saw a King Rat, I wouldn't kill it," says Sok Touch, reflecting local

beliefs that any animal with unusual characteristics has spiritual powers. To kill

one would bring bad luck.

But as for the rest, it's open slaughter. When the Post visited Chea Sey, villagers

proudly showed off their catches and boasted of who could lay claim to being the

best rat hunters.

But the work is by no means simple, says Sok Touch, who catches only about five rats

a day.

"It is easier to chase rats in the dry season. In the wet season, they jump

into the water when we chase them."

The rats-for-rice Rat Management Field Days were organized by the Food and Agriculture

Organization (FAO), World Food Program (WFP) and Svay Rieng authorities.

WFP gave 20 metric tones of rice for the rat catchers, while the FAO's Integrated

Pest Management team provided six trainers to educate the villagers about rat control.

The province supplied 12 technicians and 2 million riels for expenses.

Villagers were told how to put up plastic fences around their rice fields, as well

as the best ways to find and catch the rodents.

Toch Sak, the second deputy governor, says the rat plague is the worst in four years.

Despite the numbers killed by villagers, the rats will be difficult to eradicate,

he says.

"We cannot kill them all because rats are very clever and hide their breeding

grounds. And they never eat poisoned bait, but they prefer rice stems because it

tastes nicer."

He hopes the rats will go back to Vietnam as flooding recedes.

In the meantime, he believes there will not be serious food shortages. Some families

have surplus rice left over from the last harvest, he says, and the province has

7,000 tons of seeds for distribution.

But Thach Rottana, director of the provincial agricultural department, warns that

the upcoming dry-season rice crop may be jeopardized if the rats are not brought

under control.

Rats breed profusely - a single pair can produce 2046 offspring in a year, according

to the very precise estimate of Sok Tim, the district agriculture chief - and will

leave a dangerous legacy for Svay Rieng's rice potential if they are not stopped.

Iv Phirum, an Integrated Pest Management Program monitoring officer, says anti-rat

training will continue to be given to farmers in the short term, but no more rice.

Sok Tim and Thach Rottana, meanwhile, are mulling a permanent rat committee to control

the problem, and Rottana reckons an incentive program to encourage villagers to keep

catching rats is the best solution.

In Vietnam, for instance, the authorities pay farmers for rat tails - and offer a

reward of a color television to those who kill 100,000 rats.

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