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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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,
"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
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
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.