Smelling a rat

Hun­dreds of stray cats have been re­leased in north­west­ern China’s prairies to con­trol a rat ram­page, spark­ing wide­spread on­line de­bate.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By XIN­HUA in Urumqi

Hun­dreds of stray cats have been re­leased in north­west­ern China’s prairies to con­trol the re­gion’s rat ram­page, but the ef­fort has sparkled on­line de­bate and con­cern.

In early Au­gust, eight stray cats were re­leased in rat-plagued grass­land in Bole, the Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion. They are among a group of around 100 cats that have been in­tro­duced this year to con­trol the prairie’s rat pop­u­la­tion.

The city’s prairie work­sta­tion started in­tro­duc­ing ur­ban strays for rat con­trol as early as 2011. So far, more than 600 stray cats have been re­leased into some 5,300 hectares of rat-in­fested grass­lands around the city.

“There are a large num­ber of stray cats in our city. We think us­ing them to erad­i­cate the ro­dent pop­u­la­tion on the prairie can be a win-win so­lu­tion,” said Guan Tingx­ian, head of the city’s prairie work­sta­tion.

Prairie rats eat grass roots and bur­row into the grass­land, which can in­crease desertification.

As in many places in China, lo­cal res­i­dents in Bole typ­i­cally use traps or poi­son for rat con­trol.

How­ever, th­ese meth­ods have been less than ef­fec­tive, es­pe­cially poi­son, which not only causes pol­lu­tion but also harms live­stock and preda­tors such as foxes and ea­gles.

Over the past three years, the use of strays to con­trol prairie rats has ap­peared to be ef­fec­tive, as cats are of­ten seen hunt­ing and catch­ing the rats.

“I’ve spot­ted the cats catch­ing rats sev­eral times while herd­ing my sheep,” said Su­laiman, a lo­cal herder.

Nev­er­the­less, the move has trig­gered heated de­bate on­line.

Al­though some be­lieve re­lo­cat­ing cats is a good way to ad­dress both pest con­trol and the abun­dance of stray cats, oth­ers dis­agree.

“Ur­ban cats can­not adapt to the en­vi­ron­ment in the grass­land. In the win­ter, they may freeze to death,” said a ne­ti­zen who ques­tioned the well-be­ing of the stray cats.

Hu Yukun, a re­searcher of prairie ecol­ogy at the Xin­jiang In­sti­tute of Ecol­ogy and Ge­og­ra­phy, shared the same con­cern.

He said cats, which are usu­ally raised as pets and fed by their own­ers, have a hard time adapt­ing to the wild en­vi­ron­ment.

“There are dif­fer­ent rats on the grass­land, such as the brown rat and mole rat. They vary in color and size. Do­mes­tic cats may not rec­og­nize them and may be fright­ened by the rats in­stead,” said Hu, adding the stray cats’ ef­fec­tive­ness may not be as good as some have as­sumed.

In re­sponse to adap­ta­tion con­cerns, Guan said the work­sta­tion has built “cat houses” near wa­ter sources. The work­sta­tion will also ask lo­cal herders to take the cats in dur­ing the win­ter, when tem­per­a­tures plum­met and the cats face a scarcity of food.

The work­sta­tion plans to train the cats be­fore they are re­leased in the fu­ture so that they can bet­ter adapt.

Guan ad­mits there may be some prob­lems with their meth­ods, though there has been a dras­tic de­crease in the num­ber of rat bur­rows on the grass­land over the years.

“We can’t say that the de­crease can be at­trib­uted to the in­tro­duc­tion of the cats, as we lack suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence,” Guan said. “We’ll mon­i­tor the cats in the fu­ture to ver­ify their role in rat con­trol.”

De­spite th­ese ef­forts, some ne­ti­zens are still wor­ried about the ef­fect the cats may have on the lo­cal ecosys­tem. Some have ar­gued that the fe­lines may also prey on birds and other prairie an­i­mals, dam­ag­ing the lo­cal food chain.

“It is com­pletely wrong. The num­ber of birds on the prairie may even­tu­ally shrink while the rats still in­fest,” said an In­ter­net user.

“The in­tro­duc­tion of stray cats means that a new species has bro­ken in be­tween ro­dents and foxes on the prairie food chain,” said Hu, who sug­gested mon­i­tor­ing the num­ber of cats once their ef­fec­tive­ness in con­trol­ling rats has been sci­en­tif­i­cally proved.

“If the cats prove to be ef­fec­tive in con­trol­ling rats, then the num­ber of rats that the cats and foxes can con­sume should be as­sessed in or­der to main­tain the bal­ance in the prairie ecosys­tem,” he added.

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