As garbage increasingly piles up at street corners and in alley ways, rats are becoming a more common sight across Harare. The city’s waste collection system came to a standstill at the peak of Zimbabwe’s economic melt-down, which led to many residents dumping garbage in their own backyards and on undesignated locations such as wetlands and other undeveloped land. Some of this garbage has not been collected until now, four years after the beginning of the economy’s recovery. Unsightly piles of garbage can be seen in many parts of Harare such as the open spaces between Marlborough and New Marlborough, between Marimba Park and Mufakose, the corner of 8th Street and Herbert Chitepo and the wetland behind the National Sports Stadium.
Rats can be an enormous nuisance in homes and offices. They cause damage by gnawing on cables, piping, wooden furniture and paper, which often leads to electrical short-circuits and water leaks. They make annoying noises at night and cause a stench when they die.
Most worryingly however, they pose a health risk to the people of Harare. Through their droppings, urine and saliva, rats spread several diseases to man. Some of these diseases can be fatal, for example Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS) and Weil’s syndrome (Leptospirosis).
The presence of rats in your home or office is easy to tell by their small, spindle shaped droppings, unusual stale smells, wooden doors that are gnawed at the bottom, scattered household waste and black marks and stains on walls, cables and ceiling beams. It seems that not only has the rat population grown, but the rats have grown in size too, with several reports of rats the size of small cats having been spotted in the city, though these could have been Gambian rats.
One fumigator, however, was a bit more cautious, saying that though he agreed that the population of rats in Harare today far exceeds what it was fifteen years ago, it does not necessarily mean it is still growing. He went on to say that though the number of people seeking fumigation services has grown since dollarisation, it is difficult to ascertain if this is because the rat population is increasing or people now have more disposable income with which they can seek professional fumigation services.
Rat infestation can occur rapidly as one pair of rats can produce a colony of 2,000 rats in a year. This is because 30 percent of females in a colony are pregnant at any time and females become sexually active at 8–12 weeks of age. Their gestation period is 21 to 23 days and females are able to conceive whilst suckling a previous litter, often mating within 18 hours of giving birth. This gives them the ability to produce up to 14 litters in a year, each litter having seven to nine offspring. Thus a rat colony can grow exponentially so long as food is available.
Once a home is infested it is important to have it fumigated in order to eradicate them. There are several fumigation companies in Harare. One, The Fumigators, charge $115 to fumigate a three-bedroom house. The fumigation process will take three visits and is done over three weeks. They use three active compounds whose names they were reluctant to provide, however they assured us that they are all permitted by the Veterinary Association of Zimbabwe. An individual fumigator, Mr Makura uses traps and chemicals to fumigate and charges $35 for his services.
On enquiring of the City of Harare whether the population of rats has increased over the past few years, we were thrown back and forth between the Department of Health and the Department of Waste Management. We were however, able to establish that a City of Harare fumigation team is based at Nazareth Hospital but it is unclear whether or not they provide services to private households. Chemicals used to kill rats are controversial due to secondary poisoning. This is when a rat that has been poisoned is eaten by pets or small children. Examples of chemicals used are 4-hydroxycoumarin and indadione, which kill rats by causing them to haemorrhage.
To deal with the problem, it is important that people prevent infestation by covering pipes with mesh wire and avoiding storing boxes containing paper, clothing or wool in the ceiling or basement. Keeping kitchens clean, cleaning out pets’ food containers at night, cleaning out aviaries and animal pens and sealing cereal and grain in plastic or glass containers will also go a long way towards keeping populations down.