A unique harvest is under way in the rice fields of Cambodia where tens of thousands of wild rats are being trapped alive each day to feed a growing export market for the meat of rural rodents.
Popularly considered a disease-carrying nuisance in many societies, the rice field rats, Rattus argentiventer, of this small South-East Asian nation are considered a healthy delicacy due to their free-range lifestyle and largely organic diet.
Rat-catching season reaches its height after the rice harvest in June and July when rats have little to eat in this part of rural Kompong Cham province, some 60km from the capital Phnom Penh.
That lack of food coincides with seasonal rains that force the rodents onto higher ground, and into the 120 rat traps local farmer Chhoeun Chhim, 37, said he set each evening.
“Wild rats are very different. They eat different food,” said Mr Chhim, explaining with a gourmand’s intensity the difference between rice-field rats and their urban cousins, which he considers vermin unfit for the cooking pot.
Common rats “are dirty and they have a lot of scabies on their skin,” Mr Chhim said. “That’s why we don’t catch them.”
Somewhat proudly he listed off the superior eating habits of the rats he had caught the night before: rice stalks, the vegetable crops of unlucky local farmers, and the roots of wild plants.
On a good night, he can catch up to 25kg of rats.
“After the harvest season the rats don’t have much food to eat, so it is a good time to catch them,” he said, unloading his motorcycle of several large, steel cages filled with rats at the home of the local rat trader.
Though rat meat tastes “a bit like pork,” Mr Chhim said it was not really his preferred meal.
“We sell the rats for money and buy fish instead,” said Chin Chon, 36, another rat catcher as he dropped off several more packed cages to be weighed, graded and repacked for export.
All of their catch, which amounted to 200kg of noisy, squealing rats on a recent morning, is exported exclusively to Vietnam.