4 February 2014

African Project Aims to Stop Rats in Their Tracks

A project to control the spread of rats and mice in Africa has won a €1 million grant (nearly US$1.4 million) from the European Development Fund and, according to researchers, could transform food security on the continent.

The StopRats project, whose members met at the University of Greenwich, London, last month (20 January), has a threefold purpose. It will work with Africans to show them how simple, existing technologies can best be harnessed to reduce rodent numbers; explore ecological techniques, such as using predators to control pest numbers; and disseminate best practices by connecting scientists working on rodent control across the continent.

Rodents cause many problems in developing countries. As well as destroying food crops and household property and items, they are also vectors of deadly diseases.

"Here in Tanzania, investigators have recorded losses of up to 400,000 tonnes of maize due to rodents, which could feed around 2.5 million people per year and is valued at US$40 million," says Apia Massawe, co-investigator on the StopRats project, and a professor at the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania. "Rats are also reservoirs of more than 64 diseases known to affect humans, among the most serious of which are bubonic plague and Lassa fever."

Current rodent pest management in Africa depends largely on the use of rodenticide poisons. These work well in some cases, but their use is increasingly challenged because of the damage they cause to human health and the environment.

Many smallholder farmers also often find such poisons to be ineffective, unaffordable or unavailable, according to Steve Belmain, coordinator of the StopRats project and an ecologist at the University of Greenwich's National Resources Institute.

StopRats intends to educate African communities about the existing tools and technologies available to manage rodents cost-effectively. The project plans to deliver workshops, seminars and radio programs, and to identify stakeholders in need of the technologies, such as farmers and pest controllers.

It also plans to introduce novel strategies for ecologically-based rodent management. For example, encouraging predators such as owls and birds of prey to nest in fields increases the mortality pressure on rodent populations. Other strategies that will be explored include barrier systems that keep rats from crops, and more effective trapping systems that are also easier to set.

The team will be demonstrating the ideas at a local level, hoping that this will encourage uptake by local people.

"None of these technologies are particularly new," says Belmain. "We've been trapping pests for millennia, but StopRats isn't only about researching what works best where - it's about capacity building and getting different stakeholders in a country working together, which can be very effective if people coordinate over a period of time."

According to Massawe, African scientists researching rat control methods "seem to be working in isolation".

"The StopRats project aims to break this barrier by bringing these scientists together and establishing mechanisms for information-sharing and exchange of knowledge," she says.

StopRats is just one example of a project hoping to identify science, technology and innovation priorities for rodent-related research. Other recent examples include training rats to detect landmines in Mozambique and tuberculosis in Tanzania.

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