Innovative solution to Lao rodent plague

Local barn owls being deployed to combat the menace

20 August 2009, Rome - Superstition and folklore may have tainted the owl as a harbinger of death in many South East Asian countries, but in Lao PDR the owl may in fact be the savior for up to 140 000 Laotians forced into severe food insecurity.

'Sea of rats'

Since April 2008, villages in seven provinces in the northern uplands of Lao PDR experienced the worst rodent outbreaks in over 20 years.  Described as a "sea of rats", these rodents caused ruthless damage to village crop production (predominantly rice but also some cash crops), destroying everything edible in their path -crops, clothing, even young chicks and ducklings.

As a result, 85,000 to 140,000 Laotians are estimated to be left food insecure. Seventy-four percent of the affected households suffered rice losses of 50 to 100 percent, with 100 percent losses quite common. Maize harvest was severely damaged with 43 percent of households obtaining less than half of expected production. Many households suffered drastic decline in income and sank into deeper debts because of loans taken for seeds based on expected cash returns.

In a country where 40 percent of children under five years of age are malnourished, these outbreaks have severely aggravated an already high strain on household food security.  

An innovative solution

FAO Lao PDR has developed a long term bio-control strategy to assist 48,000 affected people by augmenting the population of local barn owl, a natural predator of rats.

"This is a three pronged strategy," said Serge Verniau, the country representative in Laos for FAO.

"First, we work with what already exists, by up-scaling the adoption by farmers of tested rodent control practices, such as traps, through training, and dissemination of information on rodent management. Second, we study the somewhat mysterious relationship between bamboo flowering and rodent outbreaks, aiming at early warning for timely implementation of counter measures.

"Finally, we significantly increase the natural population of local barn owl to provide effective natural control of the rodent populations," he explains.

"The critical element of this simple strategy is engaging with local communities to conduct dialogues on benefits of the barn owl, ecological rodent management and protection.

One fundamental challenge is how to overcome the pervasive local superstition that "when an owl hoots, someone dies".

"We will work in pilot areas selected for their ability to spread the message.  Villagers are smart; why would you change behaviour and beliefs without proof of success?

"But at a time like this, when their lives and the lives of the children have literally been threatened, significant ideological change is possible. If we can change their perception of barn owls, they have the opportunity to mitigate this recurring rodent plague threat for generations to come," says Verniau.

Implementing partners will include the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (National, Provincial and District levels), National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute, National Agriculture and Forestry Extension Service, Villages Committees and international non-governmental organizations.

Better livelihoods

FAO Laos believes that the funding of the $US1.5 million project will result in more than 7,680 households implementing the new rodent management practices, thereby reducing  food insecurity and significantly improving livelihoods.

The project  will also improve the scientific understanding of the relationship between rodent outbreaks and bamboo flowering. This will enable communities to anticipate and prepare for impending rodent outbreaks, giving  farmers the tools to implement countermeasures to protect their crops.

Photo: Reuters
Flying rat trap: a barn owl of the type being used in Laos.