Rat busters

 Rona Niña Mae Rojas   |  

There was simply no turning back—literally—for the rodent management team from the International Rice Research Institute as the group headed to the remote mountaintop village of Belwang in Sadanga, Mountain Province, Philippines.

Flanked by rock walls on one side and a steep drop on the other, the IRRI van carefully traversed the narrow roads that made every turn and swerve along the Cordillera Mountain Range in the Philippines a daring game with fate.

The group was led by rodent ecology expert and Irrigated Rice Research Consortium (IRRC) coordinator Grant Singleton. With him were PhD scholar Nyo Me Htwe and wildlife biologists Harvey Garcia and Vincent Sluydts.

The outbreak
Through a farmer field school in agroforestry, the village farmers started organic farming of citrus fruits to take advantage of the mountain’s soil quality.

The village had a successful run in its citrus fruit plantation for 3 years, helping boost farmers’ incomes. Although damages caused by rats were observed in the previous planting seasons, the rats didn’t start to attack the village crops on a massive scale until 2009, resulting in heavy losses to both rice and citrus farmers.

As many as 27%  of the citrus trees were damaged and, by 2010, rice yield losses reached an alarming 30–50%. DA and SADC then decided to seek help in tackling the chronic problem of rodent infestations. Mr. Boller got in touch with Dr. Singleton and asked him to train the farmers in Belwang.

The team, however, couldn’t help but notice the patches of rice terraces damaged by rats (see When rats attack). Belwang village is home to around 115 families who rely heavily on the produce from their land. Their main crop is heirloom rice, the native rice variety of the region (see The seed keeper’s treasure), which is planted in just one season, from January to March.

According to local farmer Banawag Kadatar, the season’s harvest is often just enough for their food for the next 6 months. Sometimes, a few farmers manage to plant glutinous rice, which is sold for export.

Rat traps
After two-and-a-half hours of braving the vertical pathways to Belwang, the group was finally welcomed by the villagers. The group divided into three teams to set up 70 rat traps in and around the village houses, rice terraces, and citrus fruit orchards. The farmers enthusiastically assisted the team in setting up the traps, pointing out areas where rodents were frequently seen.

Mr. Boller believes that this activity is a useful hands-on exercise for the farmers in rat-trapping techniques. “It took away their fear from the ‘unknown’ animal,” he shares. “It was an important step towards knowing your ‘enemy’ first.” 
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