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04-22-2010, 12:21 PM
BANGLADESH: Rodent crisis leaves thousands hungry


BANGKOK, (IRIN): More than 40,000 people in southeastern Bangladesh's remote Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) are still food insecure despite a three-year battle against rats, aid officials say.

An infestation of rats, attracted by flowering bamboo, has seen the destruction of crops, and affected communities who depend on bamboo sales to boost their incomes.

"The bamboo flowering and rodent crisis that started in 2007 is not yet over," John Aylieff, country director for the World Food Programme (WFP), which works in the six most affected sub-districts, told IRIN from Dhaka.

"Although the situation is improving, the loss of crops for a third year running has left communities extremely vulnerable," he said.

The rats are now declining in numbers, but the bamboo flowering event has upset the ecosystem, Aylieff said, resulting in further crop damage in 2009, caused mostly by wild pigs as well as the rats.

According to an assessment by the UN and the government in early 2008, around 130,000 people, or about 10 percent of CHT's population, have been affected by the current rat crisis.

"This population, isolated and remote, has faced successive shocks over the last few years - the rodents, the loss of bamboo and the pigs - with grave humanitarian consequences," said Milko Van Gool, the European Union's acting head of delegation in Bangladesh.

Breeding frenzy

Roughly every 50 years, experts say bamboo plants in the hilly area produce flowers which, when eaten, result in a breeding frenzy of sorts for the rats.

The seeds, which are high in protein, enable the rats to breed four times faster than normal.

When their numbers swell and the bamboo seeds are finished, the rats then move to consume people's crops.

Although the rat infestation is no longer the main problem, the 2009 harvest was again largely destroyed by wild pigs, chickens and monkeys, which are attacking crops in greater numbers and with greater frequency than before the crisis.

The damage caused by rats, pigs and other wild animals resulted in a harvest of only 30-50 percent of what was expected, says WFP.

One theory for the increase in wild pigs is that bamboo shoots are less available, so pigs move out of the forests in search of food and attack crops.

Bamboo dies off after flowering, and takes around five years to regenerate.

"The subsequent loss of the two main income sources of affected communities - agriculture and sale of bamboo - has left them [residents] vulnerable as there are few other livelihood opportunities available," said WFP's Aylieff.

Coping mechanisms tested

Coping mechanisms - including the consumption of wild forest foods - are being sorely tested.

While some families eat fewer meals, others migrate in search of wage labour. Male family members have to travel deep into the jungle to harvest bamboo, since it is no longer readily available in areas where they live.

In addition to its ongoing activities - including food and cash for work, and food and cash for training - WFP says farmers need seeds and other agricultural inputs so they may plant in April and cultivate again next year.

Measures could be taken to prevent crop damage from wild pigs such as the installation of crop protection barriers, the agency says.

According to elders in the area, the last rat infestation to strike the area started in 1958, and its effects lasted for many years.

Those who remember it say it took at least three years for the rodent population to reduce, and at least five years for bamboo forests to recover.