Kandal province – It’s rat-catching season in Koh Thom district. Motorbike after motorbike, each carrying wooden cages heaving with hundreds of plump, furry, grey and brown rats, pulled up on Thursday morning at Mrs Leh’s house.
Being the top rat trader in the town of Chrey Thom next to the Vietnamese border, Mrs Leh was busy as the rodents were weighed, sorted and packed for transport to Vietnam.
“It’s good to eat, it’s natural. These rats only eat plants and rice,” said Mrs Leh, 58, as she used scissors to gut dead rats unfit for export that were now destined for local cooking pots.
“I hear on TV about diseases from pigs and chicken, I never hear about the disease from rats,” she said as a flurry of activity broke out at a nearby rat trader’s place. Middlemen had arrived on their motorbikes, queuing to get their cages of rice-field rats weighed and emptied into large cages.
An earthy stench and squeals of panicky rats filled the air as cages were shaken and workers stoically plucked out dead rats with their hands and tossed them aside for local consumption.
Only live rats are exported to Vietnam. And not a single rat gets away, as escapees are quickly caught, sometimes by gaggles of local children who playfully chase and hunt them down.
Mrs Leh said she buys about 1 ton of rats per day during April and May from middlemen who bring the rodents from Kandal, Kompong Cham and Takeo provinces. From November to March the haul usually drops to between 300 and 400 kg per day, she said. “Right now, many farmers catch rats, there are more middlemen,” Mrs Leh continued, adding that she now buys rats from middlemen for 4,800 riel per kilo, while two or three years ago the price was between 3,000 to 4,000 riel.
Mrs Leh said she was the first to start the rat business in her village 23 years ago, and no one had ever gotten sick from working with rats or eating them.
“Vietnamese enjoy the small [rice-field rat], as they think they are natural,” she added.
A worker at a neighboring rat trader said he moves about 2 tons per day and a third trader said she also buys around 1 ton every day.
“It’s a good business because it reduces the amount of rats and we can make money,” said Chhum Ret, 48, who is one of six middlemen in Koh Thom’s Prek Tamem village. He buys rats from around 100 farmers in the area, he said.
Mr Ret said he purchases the rats for 4,000 riel per kilo and sells them at 5,000 riel per kilo, fetching himself a profit of around 15,000 riel per day.
Most farmers in the district can only grow rice in the dry season, which lasting from November to April, as their fields are too flooded in rainy season, he said. Rats thrive in the rice fields, but when rice gets harvested the rats move out and become concentrated in the seasonally flooded forests where villagers have grown apt at catching them, Mr Ret said.
Cage traps are put in the rats’ runways in the evening and are collected in the morning, he said, adding that farmers put out between 200 to 300 traps and are so skilled that they can catch several rats in one trap. “I don’t think it’s dirty work,” said Srin Chhoeun, 30, another middleman.
“I eat rat every day, it tastes as good as pork, if you know how to prepare it,” he said.
“Most Cambodians only know a few ways to cook it, but in Vietnam they know many dishes, such as soups, curries and fried rat,” Mr Chhoeun said.
The farmers in Koh Thom district are the most skilled rat catchers in Cambodia, he added.
Yang Saing Koma, director of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture, or CEDAC, said rats often damage dry season rice fields and a loss of 10 to 20 percent of harvests due to rats is normal in parts of Prey Veng and Kandal provinces.
CEDAC had tried to unite villagers to kill rats, but if there’s a financial incentive farmers are much more eager to catch the rodents, he said. Trapping rats is an irregular source of income for farmers and is common only in some areas, he added.
Uk Sokhon, secretary of state at the Ministry of Agriculture, said he had never heard of the rat export market with Vietnam. But if it did away with rodents, and earned farmers a bit of money, he welcomed their initiative.
“Rats are a plague. If farmers can get extra income and reduce rats and damage to crops, that’s good.”
At the Chrey Thom border checkpoint, immigration police officer Roeun Narin said there was regular stream of middlemen in the rat-meat trade crossing the border, and he knew of more rat-trading at other checkpoints along the border.
However, he questioned whether 35 tons of rats are being exported through his checkpoint every day, as an online Vietnamese media outlet had reported.
“We don’t tax them,” he said. “It’s a small business.”