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Rat infestation hits Bangladesh

By Mark Dummett
BBC News, Bangladesh

An infestation of rats is creating severe food shortages in the impoverished Chittagong Hill Tracts region of Bangladesh, close to the borders of India and Burma.

Sangram, a rat catcher in the remote Bangladeshi village of Theihkyong, has never been busier and nor has his work been as important as it is now.

Rat catcher Sangram setting his bamboo traps
Sangram has placed rat traps along field boundaries

That is because the fields surrounding the village have been stripped by an invading army of rodents, which villagers say crossed over the nearby border with India three months ago.

It has become more than a job. Sangram now needs the rats to keep his family members alive.

They eat two bowls of smoked rat a day, accompanied by the wild roots he finds in the forest.

"My wife, my five children and I normally eat rice, but the rats have destroyed everything," the grim-faced Sangram said.

"All we have left are the rats and these wild potatoes."

We are in big trouble and want people to realise that
Lal Jinja, priest

They live in a traditional one-room house - the roof is of thatched grass - the walls and floors weaved strands of bamboo. It sits on high stilts.

There is space underneath for a harvest of rice, maize and vegetables but this year it is empty.

Theihkyong is a poor village with two churches and a community school. But there is no clinic, no electricity, no running water or telephones.

The people here have to fend for themselves. They are proud of their independence and their identity as members of one of Bangladesh's tribal minorities, but when something bad happens, they have nothing to fall back on.

The rat minefield

The rat traps that Sangram looks after are huge and ingenious. A long bamboo fence divides two fields but every so often Sangram has left open a booby-trapped entrance.

Map of Bangladesh showing Dhaka and Chittagong

When the rat walks in, it triggers the trap, and a bamboo pole, weighted with soil, drops with a thump.

He walks along the fence throwing the squashed, light-brown rats into a basket he wears on his back.

At home they will be strung together and smoked over an open fire until they are black and hard.

Sangram also checks uninhabited houses that dot the fields. Inside are dozens of carefully concealed snares.

It is the villagers' revenge. They have turned their desolated hillsides into a rat minefield. They have caught thousands of them.

In the community centre of Theihkyong they gather to show me baskets of dried rat tails.

They have kept them as proof of the crisis now facing the village, a crisis that outsiders refused to believe for months.

"We are in big trouble and want people to realise that," Theihkyong's priest Lal Jinja said.

"We want people to see these rat tails so they can understand our suffering."

The government and relief agencies are finally beginning to believe them and are waking up to the problem, which extends far beyond the boundaries of this single village.

Occupying force

According to the UN's development programme, about 125,000 people have been affected by food shortages and the rats.

Some have started to receive aid, but unless more arrives soon these people will be cut off from the outside world, without any food to eat for months.

A basket of dried rats tails
The villagers have collected thousands of rat tails

That is because the monsoon is on its way. There are not many bridges and it will be impossible to ford the rivers once the rains come.

The starving communities sit in the hills along Bangladesh's south-eastern borders with India and Burma.

It is an impoverished region called the Chittagong Hill Tracts, where the indigenous Christian and Buddhist tribes complain of decades of mistreatment by the central authorities.

The only government institution that is decently funded is the army.

It says it needs a large presence to defend the region against a myriad of tribal rebel groups from India, Burma and Bangladesh itself. But locals say it sometimes acts like an occupying force.

The looming famine is proof of this neglect, as the crisis - and the rat invasion - were entirely predictable.

It happens to this region roughly every 50 years. That is how often the bamboo forests that cover the hillsides blossom.

Their seeds are high in protein and, when the rats eat them, they breed four times faster than normal.

After their numbers swell and they finish eating the bamboo seeds, they move into people's fields and eat their crops.

The blossoming, the rat problem, and the food shortages began two years ago in India then moved into Bangladesh in January and have now headed south into Burma as well.

The last rat plague in 1959 caused devastation just over the border in the Indian state of Mizoram.

The people there suffered so much and were so appalled by the lack of help from the government, they launched a rebellion that lasted 20 years.

In the Chittagong Hill Tracts, many people remember that time as well. One of them is the 93-year-old king of the Marma tribe, Raja Aung Shue Prue Chowdhury.

He tells me that the rats then "were as big as pigs".

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 22 March, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Country profile: Bangladesh
05 Feb 08 |  Country profiles
Rats destroy crops in Bangladesh
08 Feb 08 |  South Asia
Rats devour rice in Indian state
11 Jan 08 |  South Asia
Plague of rats hits Indian state
12 Dec 07 |  South Asia
Clean break from cycle of disease
15 Mar 08 |  Science/Nature


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