September 8, 2005

Rats, bats plague Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians

MANAGUA, Nicaragua (Reuters) - A plague of rats caused by
snake hunting is threatening thousands of Miskito Indians with
famine in a remote corner of Nicaragua's jungle, while vampire
bats are raising concerns about rabies, a United Nations agency
said on Thursday.

Miskito Indians from communities near the Coco River face
severe food shortages after rodents ate most of their crops,
and they are increasingly worried about attacks by
blood-sucking bats, Alfredo Misael of the United Nations
Development Program said.

"The rats destroyed between 90 percent and 100 percent of
the crops, directly affecting 4,500 people," he said in a
telephone interview.

In the summer rainy season the rats flee riverside homes
for higher agricultural land, where they gorge on Miskito crops
of rice and plantain.

The rat population has boomed in Miskito territories as
people hunt more snakes -- the rats' natural predator -- for
food and for their skins.

Vampire bats, which are also worrying locals, are
relatively common in Central America and feed mainly by
drinking the blood of livestock and birds. Reports of attacks
on humans are infrequent, but since the bat population is on
the rise, officials fear attacks on humans could increase. "The
danger is that they spread rabies to people," Misael said.

The Miskito Indians, many who live in extreme poverty, are
a mainly English-speaking group indigenous to the Caribbean
coast of Nicaragua and Honduras.

Their territory was a British protectorate in the 18th
century, from where, alongside the British, they launched
attacks against Spanish colonies. Many do not consider
themselves Nicaraguan.

The Nicaraguan government is working with the United
Nations to fly food aid to the affected villages and design
rat-resistant planting programs.