Pest control in Xinjiang seems to work, but many fear felines will freeze
Hundreds of stray cats have been released in northwestern China's prairies to control the region's rat rampage, but the effort has sparkled online debate and concern.
In early August, eight stray cats were released in rat-plagued grassland in Bole, the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. They are among a group of around 100 cats that have been introduced this year to control the prairie's rat population.
The city's prairie workstation started introducing urban strays for rat control as early as 2011. So far, more than 600 stray cats have been released into some 5,300 hectares of rat-infested grasslands around the city.
"There are a large number of stray cats in our city. We think using them to eradicate the rodent population on the prairie can be a win-win solution," said Guan Tingxian, head of the city's prairie workstation.
Prairie rats eat grass roots and burrow into the grassland, which can increase desertification.
As in many places in China, local residents in Bole typically use traps or poison for rat control.
However, these methods have been less than effective, especially poison, which not only causes pollution but also harms livestock and predators such as foxes and eagles.
Over the past three years, the use of strays to control prairie rats has appeared to be effective, as cats are often seen hunting and catching the rats.
"I've spotted the cats catching rats several times while herding my sheep," said Sulaiman, a local herder.
Nevertheless, the move has triggered heated debate online.
Although some believe relocating cats is a good way to address both pest control and the abundance of stray cats, others disagree.
"Urban cats cannot adapt to the environment in the grassland. In the winter, they may freeze to death," said a netizen who questioned the well-being of the stray cats.
Hu Yukun, a researcher of prairie ecology at the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography, shared the same concern.
He said cats, which are usually raised as pets and fed by their owners, have a hard time adapting to the wild environment.
"There are different rats on the grassland, such as the brown rat and mole rat. They vary in color and size. Domestic cats may not recognize them and may be frightened by the rats instead," said Hu, adding the stray cats' effectiveness may not be as good as some have assumed.
In response to adaptation concerns, Guan said the workstation has built "cat houses" near water sources. The workstation will also ask local herders to take the cats in during the winter, when temperatures plummet and the cats face a scarcity of food.
The workstation plans to train the cats before they are released in the future so that they can better adapt.
Guan admits there may be some problems with their methods, though there has been a drastic decrease in the number of rat burrows on the grassland over the years.
"We can't say that the decrease can be attributed to the introduction of the cats, as we lack sufficient evidence," Guan said. "We'll monitor the cats in the future to verify their role in rat control."
Despite these efforts, some netizens are still worried about the effect the cats may have on the local ecosystem. Some have argued that the felines may also prey on birds and other prairie animals, damaging the local food chain.
"It is completely wrong. The number of birds on the prairie may eventually shrink while the rats still infest," said an Internet user.
"The introduction of stray cats means that a new species has broken in between rodents and foxes on the prairie food chain," said Hu, who suggested monitoring the number of cats once their effectiveness in controlling rats has been scientifically proved.
"If the cats prove to be effective in controlling rats, then the number of rats that the cats and foxes can consume should be assessed in order to maintain the balance in the prairie ecosystem," he added.