Ecologically-based rat management for increased food security and improved livelihoods in Africa and Asia
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Greenwich
Unit of AssessmentAgriculture, Veterinary and Food Science
Summary Impact TypeEnvironmental
Research Subject Area(s)
Environmental Sciences: Ecological Applications, Environmental Science and Management
Medical and Health Sciences: Public Health and Health Services
Summary of the impact
Rats are responsible for massive damage through crop destruction, stored
food consumption and disease transmission. Steven Belmain's research on
ecology and management of rodents has increased understanding in a
neglected field. He has helped mitigate a regional famine and save lives
during a rodent population outbreak in South Asia, and changed national
policy and practice in South Africa. He has demonstrated how an African
city can reduce zoonoses, and how damage to crops can be dramatically
reduced. He has shown how communities can transform health and livelihoods
if they work together and that rat-damage can be managed sustainably
without using poisons.
Global research on rats as pests continues to be neglected. While rodents
are a problem in many environments, their impact is more severe in
developing economies because their proximity to people is higher. Poor
agricultural practices and sanitation encourage rodents, impacting on
people and farming systems through pre- and post-harvest crop losses,
contamination of food and water and zoonosis transmission. Farmers and
householders, when conscious of the problem, have tended to rely on
poisons which contaminate the environment, are ineffective unless the
whole community acts together to eradicate a rodent population, and can be
lethal if sold and used without knowledge and care.
Dr Steven Belmain, Principal Scientist in Ecology, 1998 to present, has
researched the ecology and management of rodents and developed
technologies which reduce the multiple impacts on people's health and
livelihoods and are relevant to the agro-ecological and sociological
contexts found within African and Asian societies. Belmain, acting as
Principal Investigator, has collaborated with scientific teams from Europe
(Belgium, Netherlands, France, Germany, Denmark), Africa (Sierra Leone,
Tanzania, South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland), Asia
(China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India) and Australia. He has led
competitively-won projects involving multidisciplinary research
encompassing rodent population dynamics, systematics and taxonomy, habitat
utilisation, rodent behaviour, outbreak ecology, social anthropology,
economics, damage assessment methodologies, and the development of
non-chemical rodent population control and impact mitigation strategies.
The research has been undertaken in Africa and Asia in relation to a range
of agricultural and human health problems caused by rodents on cropping
systems and post-harvest food storage, as well as in non-agricultural
Belmain's main finding is that rodents can be sustainably managed without
using poisons. This can be done by strengthening communities to deal with
shared problems, the introduction of intensive trapping and trap barrier
systems, and environmental management to reduce the proximity of rodents
and people. Treatment-control studies of Belmain's research show that crop
damage can be reduced by more than 75% in ways that are environmentally
sustainable and cost-beneficial to subsistence farming communities [3.6].
In Bangladesh, Belmain's research included the causes and effects of
rodent population outbreaks, an infrequent 50-year phenomenon driven by
semelparous bamboo flowering. The most recent cycle started in 2004 in
India, reaching Bangladesh in 2007. Historical outbreaks 50 and 100 years
ago led to regional famine and civil war across India, Bangladesh and
Myanmar [3.2]. Despite this devastation, the science of the outbreaks
remained poorly understood, conflated by legend and anecdote, with little
consensus and much scepticism about the scale and impact of the events.
Belmain's research confirmed the baseline ecology of bamboo seed
production (this fuels exponential rodent breeding within forests,
producing up to seven generations in six months) and its linkage to rodent
outbreaks, to explain the scale of the regional famine occurring. As the
seed is depleted and germinates, rodents migrate out of forests and swarm
into crop fields, causing nearly 100% crop failure. Belmain was able to
combine this knowledge with research on how to reduce the damage to
agriculture and health.
References to the research
**3.1 Bastos, A. D. S., Nair, D., Taylor, P. J., Brettschneider, H.,
Kirsten, F., Mostert, E., Maltitz, von E., Lamb, J. M., Hooft, van P., Belmain,
S. R., Contrafatto, G., Downs, S., & Chimimba, C.T. (2011).
Genetic monitoring detects an overlooked cryptic species and reveals the
diversity and distribution of three invasive Rattus congeners in South
Africa. BMC Genetics. 12, 26. http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/1471-2156-12-26.
One of the journal's "most highly accessed" publications and has been
cited 15+ times and accessed +4600 times. IF 2.48
3.3 Singleton, G. R., Belmain, S. R., Brown, P. R., Aplin, K. and
Htwe, N. M. (2010). Impacts of rodent outbreaks on food security in Asia.
Wildlife Research. 37, 355-359.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/WR10084 Article cited +16 times. IF 1.32
3.4 Stenseth, N. C., Aikimbayev, A., Atshabar, B. B., Begon, M., Belmain,
S. R., Bertherat, B., Carniel, E., Gage, K. L., Leirs, H., &
Rahalison, L. (2008). Plague: Past, Present and Future. PLoS Medicine.
5(1), e3. 9-13. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050003
Article cited +109 times with + 30,000 views/downloads and 57 academic
bookmarks. IF 16.27
**3.5 Taylor, P. J., Arntzen, L., Hayter, M. Iles, M., Frean, J., & Belmain,
S. R. (2008). Understanding and managing sanitary risks due to
rodent zoonoses in an African city: beyond the Boston Model. Integrative
Zoology. 3, 38-50. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-4877.2008.00072.x +18 citations
3.6 Taylor, P. J., Downs, S., Monadjem, A, Eiseb, S. J., Mulungu, L. S.,
Massawe, A. W., Mahlaba, T. A., Kirsten, F., Maltitz von, E., Malebane,
P., Makundi, R. H., Lamb, J., & Belmain, S. R. (2012).
Experimental treatment-control studies of ecologically based rodent
management in Africa: balancing conservation and pest management. Wildlife
Research. 39(1), 51-61. http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/WR11111 +2
Key grants about rodents
3a S. R. Belmain. StopRats: Sustainable technology to overcome pest
rodents in Africa through science (Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Swaziland,
Namibia, South Africa, Madagascar). EU ACP Science and Technology.
3b S. R. Belmain. Rat Management for Rural Communities in Bangladesh.
DFID Asian Innovation Challenge Fund of Research Into Use Programme
Project CRD ITT 001. 2008-2011. £594,000. www.nri.org/bandicoot
3c S. R. Belmain. Ecology of rat floods and bamboo masting.
Krishi Gobeshona Foundation of the World Bank . 2008-2011. $25,000.
3d S. R. Belmain. Scientific Assessment of Bamboo Flowering, Rodent
Outbreaks and Food Security in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. United
Nations Development Programme CHTDF-SSA- D04-2008. 2007-2008. $75,000.
3e S. R. Belmain. The EcoRat Project, (Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania,
South Africa). EuropeAID 9th EDF research project 9 ACP
SAD 1-12. 2007-2010. €650,000. www.nri.org/ecorat
3f S. R. Belmain (PI/Technical Coordinator). Prevention of sanitary
risks linked to rodents at the rural/peri-urban interface: ratzooman,
ICA4-2001-10125, (Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Mozambique, South
Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe). EC FP5 INCO-DEV funded research project
ICA4-CT-2002-10056. 2003-2006. €1.45 million. www.nri.org/ratzooman
3g S.R. Belmain. Ecologically-based rodent management for diversified
rice-based cropping systems in Bangladesh. DFID funded research
project R8184. 2002-2005. £294,000.
3h S. R. Belmain. Technology transfer and promotion of
ecologically-based and sustainable rodent control strategies in southern
Africa, (South Africa, Mozambique). DFID funded research project
ZA0506. 2002-2005. £75,000.
Details of the impact
Rats are responsible for massive damage across the globe. Sometimes it's
dramatic, like the rodent swarms in South Asia leading to widespread
famine and civil war. Often it is more hidden and chronic, like nibbling
away 20% of a family's grain store or spreading disease - part of daily
life in developing countries. In each case, mystery has shrouded both
causes and effects of rodent damage, leading either to wildly
inappropriate treatment or no treatment. Against a background of neglect
in global research on rats as pests, Steven Belmain's work is arguably
more notable. He has helped mitigate a regional famine and save lives in
the most recent bamboo-related population outbreak in Bangladesh, and
changed national policy and prompted regular plague surveillance in South
Africa. He has demonstrated how an African city can reduce rat-transmitted
disease, and how rodent damage to crops can be reduced by over 75%. He has
shown how communities can transform health and livelihoods if they work
together and that rat-damage can be dealt with sustainably without using
poisons. Finally he has raised awareness through extensive media work.
When the food security disaster struck Bangladesh, the UNDP, WFP, Save
the Children and Helen Keller International (2008-2009) consulted Belmain
extensively to inform their international relief efforts to avert a
regional catastrophe [3b]. In 2008 Belmain was commissioned through the UN
to lead a team of scientific experts to apply his methods, first to
confirm the scale of the problem and second to provide evidence-based
policy intervention recommendations [3c]. Dr Belmain informed Government
of Bangladesh ministers with facts on the phenomenon at several
high-profile meetings to enable them to respond appropriately. The
adoption of his recommendations on how to reduce damage to agriculture and
health helped mitigate a regional famine and undoubtedly assisted in
saving many people's lives and livelihoods [3d, 3.2, 3.3]. When the bamboo
masting ended in 2010 there were no confirmed fatalities directly
attributed to food insecurity, a considerable improvement on the 10,000+
documented deaths that occurred in the region 50 years ago [5.7]. Many
food security assessments carried out by NGOs and UN agencies showed that
the famine caused severe food shortages, underweight children and mothers,
miscarriage and many other health and socio-economic problems including no
money for school fees and selling children. However, use of Belmain's
research helped mitigate the growing crisis by ensuring regional relief
efforts and funding for emergency food continued in a targeted fashion at
the appropriate scale and timing [5.6].
Dr Belmain's research in South Africa, which started in 2002 [3h, 3f, 3e,
3a], has led to changes in national and regional policies [5.8]. For
example, his discovery and highlighting of the absence of dedicated
qualifications in rodent pest management led the National Pesticide
Regulation Authority of South Africa to change its regulations: anyone
wishing to commercially engage in rodent management must now pass specific
examinations. Presently (2008-2013), all new qualifying pest control
operators who want to deal with rodents have a component on control of
rodents. In the city of Durban, Dr Belmain's research in the Ratzooman
project [3f] raised awareness of rodent diseases found in squatter camps
and informal settlements; it led to a clean-up campaign and
institutionalised rodent trapping programme by city authorities that
continues to be operated under the `Ratzooman' banner [3.5, 5.9].
Furthermore, Dr Belmain's research prompted the South African Department
of Health to establish a plague surveillance expert panel. It has operated
every year since 2006 and now routinely surveys "at risk" areas for plague
outbreaks [3.4, 5.8]. Belmain's research directly led to the development
of a new design rat trap by a commercial company in South Africa which has
been part of its sales portfolio every year since 2008, as part of its
pest control services. The trap is sold through existing marketing chains
nationally and for export throughout the member countries of the Southern
African Development Community [5.10].
Belmain's research has had considerable impact on society by raising
public awareness about rodents and the impact they have on people's
livelihoods in developing countries. Discovery Channel commissioned a
nature documentary featuring Dr Belmain in 2009, following his research on
rat swarms [5.3]. Other examples of media work include international radio
and internet programmes [5.2, 5.4, 5.5] as well as magazine articles in
journals such as Science [5.1]. Belmain's research on the
Bangladesh rat population outbreak has been incorporated into a book
[3,2], which will help inform future generations when the event happens
again and ensure better preparedness to avert famine.
Sources to corroborate the impact
5.1 Normile D. (2010) Holding back a torrent of rats. Science.
327: 806-807. http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/summary/327/5967/806
5.2 CBCRadio (2010) Falling Flowers Rising Rats. Quirks and Quarks.
5.3 Discovery Channel (2011) Swarmchasers: Rats!. 45 minute documentary
film broadcast on Animal Planet. The programme was originally released in
North America and subsequently translated into 25 languages for broadcast
to over 50 countries across Europe, Asia and Africa. http://www.nri.org/projects/bandicoot/docs/swarmchasers%20rats.wmv
5.4 BBC World Service (2010) Rat Attack Science in Action.
5.5 BBC Earth News (2010) Attack of the Rats.
5.6 Executive Director, Association for Integrated Development.
5.7 Programme Director, Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Facility.
5.8 Director, Plant Protection Research Institute, Agricultural Research
5.9 Director, Manager (Vector Control), Communicable Diseases, eThekwini
5.10 Managing Director, Scientific Supakill, 8 Derrick Road, Spartan,
Kempton Park, South Africa. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: +27 11