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Sunday, March 1, 1998 Published at 14:42 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Cool for cats as rats run wild

New measures to combat a plague of rats which are eating their way through Vietnam's rice fields have been ordered by the authorities: cats are off the menu.

The Prime Minister, Phan Van Khai, has ordered restaurants which specialise in cooking cat meat to close. He also called for the punishment of those found smuggling cats to China for use as meat or medicine.

Rice farmers say that the country's rat population has grown out of control. In many places they estimate that the rodents will eat between 30 and 50% of their crops and cause millions of dollars worth of lost income.

They say that all the traditional methods of reducing rat numbers, such as poisoning and trapping, no longer work.

In one central province farmers say they kill at least 3,500,000 rats a week but the population just keeps growing.

El Nino - again

Meteorologists say the infestation is due to the unusually warm and dry weather Vietnam is experiencing as a result of the El Niño phenomenon.

Farmers along Vietnam's central coastal region never used to have a rat problem because traditionally the area is frequently flooded but there have been no major floods there since last October.

No snakes in the grass

However some scientists say that another reason for the flourishing of rats is that Vietnam is facing a shortage of cats and other animals which prey on rats, such as snakes.

The poaching and trafficking of such creatures for China where they are prized as exotic meat is increasing.

The prime minister is therefore hoping that his orders will have an effect and restore the balance of nature to Vietnam's countryside.

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