After a widespread rat infestation wiped out most of the season’s rice harvest in communities throughout the country, hungry Lao villagers have begun hunting owls, snakes, and other wild animals to supplement their diets.
But now, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) not only is trying to persuade the villagers not to hunt the owls, but is also launching an emergency owl-breeding program to help combat the local upsurge in the rat population.
“We need to encourage communities not to kill the birds, not to eat them, to leave them in peace, and not to practice slash and burn [agriculture] so frequently that is destroys the birds’ natural habitat,” explained Serge Verneau, a spokesman for the UNFAO.
The barn owl Tyto alba is native to Laos and feeds almost entirely on rats, a single owl often consuming up to a dozen rodents a day. Diminishing owl habitat and the return of flowering bamboo -- a plant which blossoms once every 50 years and has provided rats with a plentiful food source -- have helped contribute to Laos’s worst rat infestation in decades.
Although some biologists are concerned about the potential risks of meddling with the local ecosystem, supporting growth in the owl population promises to be a more stable long-term solution that would be less costly than requiring villagers to set enough traps to contain the rat population and less environmentally damaging than the widespread use of rat poison.
Currently an estimated 130,000 Lao villagers have nothing to eat, and 5,000 tons of food supplies are being flown in to communities throughout the country to help alleviate the gravity of the situation.