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Drug used to assist in control of gerbils

ONE bite of the tempting bran-like pellet - and she has lost an opportunity to be a mother.

The pellets containing a contraception and abortion drug have been spread around northwest China's Gurbantunggut Desert in a bid to control a destructive plague of gerbils.

Staff in the desert administration station in Changji City, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, started to feed gerbils the drug in the main breeding season in May last year.

"Besides pregnancy prevention, the drug can induce abortions and thus largely reduce their breeding rate," said Du Yuefei, chief of the epidemic prevention section of the city's forestry bureau.

Gerbils multiply quickly and a female can give birth to a litter every three months.

The gerbils pose a major threat to agriculture and horticulture as the rodents store grass in complicated burrows that seriously damage the root stalks of plants. One such hole can store 40 kilograms of grass.

Du's colleagues spread the pellets around the entrances to burrows. "It's a good way to tackle the desert rat plague," said Du.

The low-toxic drug has little effect on other animals so it doesn't affect the food chain, and the gerbils have no resistance to it.

Du said the project could be extended to deal with other rodent problems in northwest China.

"The only problem is that our 20 or so staff have to redistribute the pellets every four to five days, and it's really hard work," said Du.

Numerous burrows can be seen all over China's northwest region, especially in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. A medium-sized burrow usually contains dozens of small entrances, while a large one has up to 300.

Du said his section spent 80,000 yuan (US$11,400) for 200kg of the drug to cover 49,000 hectares last year.

Du and his colleagues have noticed that population density has started to decline.

"Before we used the contraceptive we caught 12 gerbils in every 100 rattraps, but now the average is 11 in every 100 traps," said Du. He noticed the number of gerbil holes has also dropped since the contraceptives were put in the desert.

Changji City set up the desert ecology preservation station in 2003 and installed 300 perches for owls and eagles, both natural enemies of rodents.


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