With a thriving rat population playing havoc with its coconut yield, the Union Territory of Lakshadweep is turning to barn owls for help.
The scenic islands have ‘recruited’ three pairs of barn owls from Kerala to fight what has so far been a losing battle against the rodents. After a lengthy bureaucratic process that began in 2017, the winged hunters have now reached Kavaratti by ship. For the time being, the three males and three females are getting acclimatised in specially built cages. “They will gradually be released into the coconut plantations under a closely monitored breeding and rodent management programme,” Damodhar A.T., Secretary, Environment and Agriculture, Lakshadweep Islands, said. According to the authorities, the owls were chosen from among healthy birds rescued by the Kerala Forest Department.
The biocontrol measure is spearheaded by the Lakshadweep Administration, with the Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) at Kavaratti providing the technical know-how. Coconut is an important money-spinner for the islands, but the pesky rodents account for 30 to 40% of the yield loss. Total production stood at 8.76 crore nuts in 2017-18.
However, employing owls to hunt down rats is not exactly a new idea for the Islanders. “You could say we are witnessing a reintroduction of the birds. Even the British had made an attempt in the 19th century for rodent management,” said Abdul Gafoor, subject matter specialist with the KVK.
Similar attempts were reportedly made in the 1960s as well. “Again, it's not just about collecting a few birds and releasing them into the coconut plantations. It has to be a breeding programme. Also, these are birds in the scheduled list and need to be cared for as such,” he said. Why barn owls? Why not other accomplished rat hunters like cats or rat snakes? The reason is that the rats in the Lakshadweep Islands practically live on treetops.
Why barn owls?
“The coconut palms here grow so close together that they resemble a jungle. The fronds overlap, allowing the rodents to move easily from one tree to another,'' Thamban C., Principal Scientist, Central Plantation Crops Research Institute (ICAR-CPCRI), Kasaragod, said. Besides, the nocturnal barn owls are natural rat hunters, armed with a powerful auditory mechanism. There is also an important environmental angle to Lakshadweep's decision to choose biocontrol. The islands being a designated organic zone, use of chemicals for pest control is a strict no-no.
If successful, the barn owl campaign will be extended to other islands in Lakshadweep as well.