Rare species of flowering bamboo puts rodents in a feeding and breeding frenzy
(Toronto Globe & Mail, March 30, 2007)
NEW DELHI — At nightfall in the remote state of Mizoram in northeast India, villagers listen with apprehension to the rustling of thousands of rats foraging and breeding in the jungle. For now, the rodents are gorging themselves on flowering bamboo. But when the bamboo dies and the rice harvesting season begins, a scurrying plague will descend on their paddy fields.
An unusual species of bamboo blankets Mizoram, a remote state with an ethnically distinct tribal population. Melocanna baccifera flowers only once every 50 years or so, generating millions of high-protein seeds that turn the local rats into incredibly prolific breeders. But when the seeds disappear, the huge number of rats left over invade the rice paddies of the area's farmers, destroying the crops the villagers depend on for survival.
In a single night, the legion of rodents can clip the ears from every rice stalk in a field, says James Lalsiamliana, the Mizoram Agriculture Department official who heads the state's rodent control cell. During last year's harvest -- when the bamboo flowering began in the eastern part of the state -- more than 40 villages lost their entire crop. And this year, the flowering has peaked across all of Mizoram.
"They depend on this paddy for subsistence," Mr. Lalsiamliana said. "The state will now have to arrange financial support for these areas."
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Local villagers call the once-in-50-years phenomenon mautam, or "bamboo death." And the last time it hit, in 1959, it was indeed deadly. The central government dismissed local forecasts as superstitious raving, and was unprepared to fight off the rodents or provide adequate relief for the massive food shortages that followed. The famine spawned a revolt against Indian rule by the Mizo National Front that lasted until 1986 and took more than 3,000 lives. Now, one of the movement's leaders, Pu Zoramthanga, is Mizoram's chief minister.
This time around, the government has released more than $125-million to fight the problem. And as much as five years back, Mizoram began tapping experts to develop a co-ordinated plan to limit the effects of the flowering and control the rodent population. The Ministry of Environment and Forests drew on experts from the International Bamboo and Rattan Network (INBAR) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) to help find new ways to utilize the bamboo and thus encourage local villagers to harvest it before it flowers. The ministry also called in Canada's John Bourne, a 30-year veteran of Alberta's rat patrol who helped make the Canadian province rat free, to study the local rodents and develop a plan for killing rats. Last season, the program Mr. Bourne helped develop allowed villagers to kill hundreds of thousands of rodents using homemade traps and poison supplied by the state.
Mr. Lalsiamliana says the state paid villagers 100 rupees (about $2.50) for every 50 traps they set and distributed more than 15,000 kilograms of rodenticide.
T.P. Subramony, head of INBAR's Delhi office, says India now has a comprehensive plan that covers extraction and management of the bamboo, how to regenerate the forest cover, controlling the rodent population and dealing with health hazards that may arise with the proliferation of the vermin. But he says the key to a solution lies in realizing the value of the bamboo itself.
Although locals cut down and burn bamboo to collect ash that they use as fertilizer, experts from the state's Bamboo Development Agency estimate that less than 1 per cent of the 850,000 hectares of bamboo gets harvested, which is why a panel of researchers from UNIDO and India's Rain Forest Research Institute has recommended the promotion of cottage industries such as the manufacture of tooth picks and bamboo mats and a temporary ban on harvesting bamboo in other parts of the country for the paper industry, along with a host of other economic stimuli.
"One issue is the dying bamboo," Mr. Subramony said. "Then there is the question of how to utilize it. There is a threat, but there is an opportunity also."
Nevertheless, this flowering season, averting a food shortage depends on killing rats. And that may not be enough.
"There will likely be a food shortage, and that may lead to famine," said S.N. Kalita, formerly the principal secretary of forests and head of the environment and forest department of Mizoram. "But the situation cannot be compared with 1959. Now our communication by road and air transport are improved, so transporting in food will not be a problem. Already, some reserve stock has been created. All I can say is that the state government and the government of India is fully prepared."
Special to The Globe and Mail