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The reign of terror unleashed by a marauding army of rats in Alexandra, northern Johannesburg, is about to come to an end – the City of Joburg has unveiled a R2,5 million integrated plan to deal with the troublesome rodents.

The Integrated Rodent Management Programme (IRMP), announced by Councillor Nonceba Molwele, the City’s Member of the Mayoral Committee for Health and Social Development, during a media briefing on Tuesday, will largely involve the deployment of what she termed “biological and cultural factors” to rid the township of the rodents.

MMC Molwele said chemicals would also be used, but only when absolutely needed.

The intervention comes after an incident in which an infant had three of her fingers and part of her nose chewed off by rats a few weeks ago.

There have also been reports in recent years of babies dying after being attacked by rats, some of them reportedly as big as a cat.

The Integrated Rat Management Programme also includes the promotion of cleanliness and the employment of strategies to prevent the illegal dumping of leftover food.

MMC Molwele said the programme would not be confined to Alexandra. “We are focusing our attention on Alexandra because it is the most affected. But it’s not the only area where we have a problem. Rodents have become a challenge in places such as informal settlements, overcrowded and hijacked buildings in the inner city, and households that are not managing their domestic waste and litter properly.”

As part of the plan, owls will be widely used to deal with the challenge. “Owls are the best natural agents to get rid of rats,” said Jonathan Haw, Director of Eco-Solutions, with which the City has entered into a partnership to manage the challenge.

Five schools have been selected to take part in the owl school project. These are Minerva High, Iphuteng, Cata Combined, Zenzeleni and Marlboro Combined.

The project involves the placement of “owl boxes” with selected learners who will act as “surrogate mothers” to the young owls, which will be kept in boxes for 21 days before they are released to feed on the rats.

By this time, they would have acclimatised and been accustomed to the surroundings, meaning they would return to their “original” homes after their nocturnal sojourns. The City will also use a “rat cage” to trap rats in large numbers.

More than 28 400 rats have been caught since the inception of the “rat cage” during a pilot project in Ward 76. This programme has since been extended to all the City’s seven regions.

The City will also from time to time fumigate burrows in which the rodents live.

Peter Manganye, the City’s Director of Environmental Health, said the City could not say with absolute certainty that it would totally eradicate the rats:

“What we seek to do is to manage their population so they do not pose the threat of spreading diseases. Residents can also assist by getting rid of unwanted stuff in their yards, keeping them free of running water and making use of dustbins to dispose of their domestic waste,” he said.