“You really see them at dusk,” Russ yelled over the airboat’s roar. Neighboring farmers see them too, pygmy hordes stealthily advancing to raid their rice fields.
Rats lie like a curse on the life of Pablo Marinay, a dignified, impoverished farmer who lives near the swamp. “Every year they destroy more than half my rice crop,” he said in his simple, tidy home above a pen of squealing pigs.
Pablo told us he had requested special Masses to ask protection from the rats. He and his neighbors had paraded a life-size wooden image of their patron saint around the fields, beseeching him for help. In desperation Pablo had secretly run a wire from a public power line to rig an electric fence around his field. The high voltage had killed a neighbor’s water buffalo, and Pablo had gone to jail. Now he was experimenting with baiting and had fresh hope.
“Tomorrow,” said Russ, “we’ll visit a harvest in a heavily infested area. Then you’ll understand his problem.”
Children Reap a Grim Harvest
Dawn found us balancing along tops of paddy dikes toward a group of 20 harvesters, men and women of all ages. Bandannas shaded their faces to ward off the merciless sun. The harvesters surrounded a plot of rice the size of a basketball court. Sickles flashing, they bent to their timeless task.
Slowly they closed their circle around the shrinking rice plot. A handful of children, each armed with a stick, now deployed expectantly behind them. Suddenly a rat burst from between two harvesters. “Yee!” exulted a small boy, taking off in hot pursuit. Stick flailing, he connected, and placed the body atop a sheaf of rice stalks.
Rats boiled from the rice into a melee of shouting, stick-wielding children. Harvesters joined in, pinioning rats with bare hands and feet, slashing with sickles, whooping when a bite drew blood.
A bleary-eyed man approached—the field’s owner. “I’ve been out here every night,” he explained wearily, “banging on a tin can to scare away the rats. Even then, I had to harvest ten days early to beat them to what was left, maybe a third of the crop.” Still his efforts had paid. He pointed to a nearby field that had been wiped out, abandoned to the rats.
With the last stalk cut, the last rat killed, the harvesters moved on to another plot, while youngsters skinned the catch and placed the little carcasses on sheaves to dry in the sun. A body count showed 93. By day’s end the group had a thousand rats—ample for lunch, for dinner, for market. In many parts of Asia and tropical Africa no squeamishness is attached to the eating of rats found in the wild.
“You’d think it would take years for rats in this area to recover from such a slaughter,” said Russ, as we followed a harvester carrying rats to sell in the market at nearby San Antonio. “But the survivors will easily rebuild the population before the next planting. Anyway, there are countless more in neighboring fields, ready to move in.”