Two Billion Rats Invade China: From Eco-Disaster To Exotic Delicacy
China's seasonal flooding--and the controversial Three Gorges Dam meant to help control it--have led to China's newest environmental threat: billions of rats. By releasing a huge flow of Yangtze River water to control flooding in the face of the annual rainy season, dam officials inundated the banks of Dongting Lake, a series of wetlands and lakes downstream of the Three Gorges that stretches across Hunan province. Resident rodents -- whose numbers have grown unusually large due to an earlier dry spell, and to a local culinary interest in snakes, rats' main predator -- migrated en masse to dry land, leaving behind them a trail of destruction in about 20 counties, the rodents' munching so loud that villagers could reportedly hear it from inside their homes.
Though rat infestations after floods are not uncommon, this is "the largest rat disaster the lakeside region has experienced in the last 10 years," Zuo Shigeng, a local agricultural official, told China Daily. As one farmer said, "It's like the mopping up by enemy troops in wars. We have nothing left."
On top of massive destruction to agriculture (6,000 square miles of crops have been damaged), the rodents threaten to spread disease in especially vulnerable areas, a concern that has led residents to bury or cremate more than 2 million rodents -- their bodies weighing an estimated 90 tonnes in total. To kill the rats, people have resorted to poison, some of it illegal, which has led to the widespread deaths of cats and stoked official fears about soil pollution and the development of a "super rat," immune to pesticides.
But some enterprising souls have reportedly entered the rat race with a different idea (and with apparently no qualms about China's recent reputation for food safety): selling them as food. Rats are being sold in greater numbers at live food markets in Changde, at the western end of the lake. From there, animals make their way to un-distinguished plates in restaurants in neighboring Guangdong province. The government has denied the news, saying that bans on wild animals still stand. But Guangdong, the home of Cantonese cuisine, is known for its exotic taste for everything from turtles to sharks to cats. And in China, where there's demand, there's supply -- and vice versa.