Forget rats. Chinese authorities in western China’s Xinjiang Province have an infestation of over one billion great gerbils on their hands, and no method they’ve used—from poison gas to contraceptive pills—seems to be working.
Though the great gerbil is in fact native to western China and Central Asia in general, recent climatic changes combined with human activity brought about its population explosion. Rodent “plagues” have occurred in Xinjiang before, but the ongoing episode was only acknowledged by Chinese state-run media after BBC and Reuters covered it first—back in 2003.
The problem has not gone away.
Capable of digging thousands of holes per square acre, great gerbils render large tracts of land unusable for farming, grazing, and sometimes even transport. Their subterranean activity destroys roots and, by weakening the earth, can even create dangerous traps for people and livestock crossing unawares on the surface above. Road and rail are also at risk as the very ground supporting them is eroded.
Local authorities have attempted a whole host of methods to cull the gerbils, which, according to some estimates, may number over one billion. In 2003, according to the Chinese state media report, a bounty was put on the animals, and then the authorities began using poison and poison gas to exterminate them. Another plan involved unleashing large numbers of eagles and other birds of prey over the rodents’ habitat.
None of these measures was satisfactory. A comparatively roundabout method was attempted in 2008 when the authorities littered massive quantities of contraceptive pills in the gerbils’ environment to induce miscarriage. The Chinese claim that the drug only affects the great gerbil and has no environmental side-effects.
Adding another dimension to the problem is a recent Chinese study showing that great gerbils can breed with the common field mouse, furthering confounding efforts at extermination. The rodent is also increasingly regarded by biologists to be the culprit for the Black Death that killed half of Europe about 8 centuries ago.
Northern and western China began experiencing rapid desertification in the last half-century as the areas were over-exploited or developed unsustainably under the communist planned economic system.
Besides expanding deserts widening the great gerbil’s natural range, humans themselves may be partly to blame for the scourge. Historically, Xinjiang was an arid region suitable only for grazing, but industrialized irrigation brought modern agriculture to the province. As described in a 2005 analysis written by investigative journalist Joshuah Bearman, the greater availability of crops to feed on contributed to the gerbils’ population boom.
Gerbils and other rodents are not the only animals to have been targeted by Chinese authorities. In the late 1950s, during the catastrophic Great Leap Forward, the “Kill A Sparrow” campaign was launched to rid the country of these crop-eating birds. Peasants all over China were instructed to chase the sparrows and keep them in flight until they died of exhaustion.
The sparrow campaign was misconceived, however. The massive dent in the sparrow population led to an increase of harmful insects, such as locusts, which proved even more disastrous for the Chinese crop. All told, between 1958 and 1962, at least 45 million people perished during the Great Leap Forward and its irrational economic campaigns, mostly of starvation.