The rat trappers

December 14, 2012 05:40 pm | Updated July 10, 2016 04:16 pm IST

The Irula rat catchers Wizards at work. Photo: Rom Whitaker

The Irula rat catchers Wizards at work. Photo: Rom Whitaker

The trap had sprung and the bait was gone. “The rat got away again,” I yelled from the kitchen. I heard Rom’s muffled groan in response. He was still in bed as dawn had not yet broken. For at least 10 days in a row, the rat managed to gnaw away the bait and escape the slamming spring-loaded bow.

When setting rat traps, Rom went into hunting mode. He has often instructed me, “You have to think like a rat to get it.” He smeared cheese all over the wooden base of the trap, fastened a peanut with string to the bait holder, and stuck a gob of peanut butter to it firmly. It was a sure way of getting the quarry. Until now.

The people who make rat catching an art form are the tribal people living in these parts, the Irula and Korava. Parrys’ is one of the busiest and most congested parts of Chennai city. At night, the Korava prowl through the empty alleys, watched suspiciously by packs of yapping stray dogs. Should a bandicoot be seen scooting, whack! A perfectly aimed shot to the head and the bandicoot writhes in its death throes. The Korava weapon of choice is a simple catapult. Shop owners who suffer rodent damage hire the tribesmen to rid them of the pests. The next morning, the hunters are paid per animal killed.

The Irula are more hands-on in their approach. When they find a rat burrow in a rice field, they plug all the exits, save one. They take an earthen pot with a hole, the size of a one rupee coin, punched through the bottom, fill it with green leaves, and set the leaves on fire. They place the mouth of the pot flush against the burrow entry, and blow through the pot’s hole. After smoke has filled every underground chamber, they excavate the burrow, and pull out all the asphyxiated rats. In the case of field rats, there might be a stockpile of grain inside the burrow as a bonus.

At sunset, the Irula pile up dry thorns in a fallow field and barbeque the rats. The fur is singed and removed along with the guts, and the rest roasted. Children vie for the crunchy tails and feet. Some of you may recoil in disgust, but these are clean, field rats grown fat on rice grain. The Irula will not eat filthy bandicoots or smelly house rats. Those are killed and discarded.

In the mid-1980s, with a grant from the Department of Science and Technology, Rom conducted a pilot study to prove the cost effectiveness of employing the Irula as rodent pest controllers. In a short period of eight months, close to 1,000 Irula caught about 2,40,000 rats from 500 acres of farmland, and recovered five tonnes of grain.

Comparatively, the commercial pest control companies set out poison baits and can only roughly estimate the number of rodents they kill since rats die inside burrows. There is no estimate of the numbers that escape without eating a lethal dose. This method also causes unintentional deaths of mammals and reptiles that may consume either the baits or poisoned rats. Rom estimated the Irula were 15 times more cost-effective than poison baits.

Recently, Rom requested the District Collector to make rat-catching one of the jobs provided under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Although the official agreed with Rom’s rationale, he demurred saying it would be a public relations disaster. ‘Government makes poor tribals catch rats for a living’ doesn’t make the administration look nice. And so, Irula skills continue to go unappreciated and under-utilised.

Back at home, when the rat triggered the trap once again and escaped, Rom turned the trap this way and that, and scratched his head. I might have to call the Irula since rats have learnt to outwit Rom and his trap.

I sang softly, “That’s right, the rat is… uh… smarter.” (Sorry, Harry Belafonte.)

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