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Chinese fight rat plague with giant saucepan

Culinary solution to Three Gorges Dam rodent disaster

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Residents downstream of China's controversial Three Gorges Dam in Hunan province have responded in traditional fashion to a plague of two billion rats forced into farmland by rising water levels - by offering them to restaurants in neighbouring Guangdong province, the home of "if it's edible, we'll eat it" Cantonese cuisine.

The rat invasion was provoked by the dam authority's release of a large amount of Yangtze River water "to control flooding in the face of the annual rainy season", the Telegraph reports.

The rising water below the structure evicted the rodents from the banks of Dongting Lake, "a series of wetlands and lakes", into neighbouring farmland, where they quickly decimated 6,000 square miles of crops.

Desperate farmers at first deployed poison, but that simply killed the cats and dogs "traditionally use to combat the menace", while doing nothing to reduce rat numbers.

However, they soon realised there was another, money-making solution to the crisis - a "major uptake in supply and demand for rat meat", reported by live food traders in Changde at the western edge of the lake. One dealer told local media: "People there [Guangdong] are rich and like to eat exotic things, so business is very good."

The economics are as follows: farmers pocket around six to ten yuan a kilogram (20 to 35 pence a pound in old money, the Telegraph helpfully adds), while Cantonese restaurants knock it out as delicious rat stew for up to four quid a pound.

But while the solution to the problem may lie in part in Guangdong's saucepans, the reasons behind the rat plague are rather more complex than a simple rise in water level. Initially, the Three Gorges Dam held back enough water from Dongting Lake's "marshy banks" to create an improved environment for the animals and provoke a sharp population rise.

Simultaneously, a "sudden fashion" for snake meat in Hunan - with residents of the capital Changsha working their way through ten tons of reptile flesh a day, according to local environmental groups - has done for the rats' main predator.

The whole sorry state of affairs is, these groups claim, fulfillment of their dire predictions about the environmental effects of the Three Gorges Dam project.

Professor Deng Xuejian, from Hunan University's school of life sciences, said: "Damage to the overall local ecology is the most important reason for the Dongting rat disaster." ®

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According to a Reuters report just in, the authorities have moved quickly to deny the Guangdong rat trade allegations. He Huaxian, a "disease control official in Hunan's plague-afflicted Yueyang county", today told China Daily: "It is difficult to catch rats alive, and it is even more difficult to catch them alive in such great numbers."

Wang Fan, a Guangzhou food safety official, also denied the reports and claimed "an inspection of a local market had found no evidence of rats for sale".

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