The tiny pest that threatens to gobble up the Big Easy

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The Independent US

At its core is a desire to protect the historic French Quarter, a draw that lures hundreds of thousands of tourists every year.

But new data suggests that while scientists have been focusing on the French Quarter, elsewhere the termites have been breeding rapidly. Outside the Quarter, the termite population may have soared by more than 70 per cent.

"The research indicates a 72 per cent increase from this time last year," said Gregg Henderson, professor of entomology at Louisiana State University, who carried out the research. "It suggests to me that we need to develop a plan that can translate to other areas of the city."

The termite eating the so-called Big Easy is the Formosan termite, a native of Asia that arrived in the US during the 1960s. Unlike some species, the Formosan thrives in hot, damp conditions - which steamy New Orleans has in abundance. Every year the Department of Agriculture spends $1bn (£57m) nationally fighting the Formosan termite in a battle it knows it can never win. In New Orleans - where the termites are responsible for a reported $300m of damage a year - experts admit that they can never hope to eradicate the pest, only to control its numbers.

Cost is a factor that hinders the experts. Each city block requires an initial outlay of $70,000, plus an annual $17,000 in treatment. The French Quarter alone spreads for 110 blocks.

"I think in the French Quarter we have been doing pretty well," said Mike Carroll, assistant director of the New Orleans Mosquito and Termite Control Board. "It's complicated because many of the buildings have shared walls. We decided to focus here first where the challenge was greatest."

In New Orleans the termites swarm every spring, invading buildings and infesting up to half the city's 4,000 oak trees.. The termites were first discovered in the US at a shipyard in Houston, Texas, in 1965. Within two years, they had travelled more than 1,000 miles infesting an area that stretched from Houston to Charleston, South Carolina.

Ed Bordes, the control board's director, recently told the Times-Picayune newspaper the biggest stumbling block outside the French Quarter was money. "The downtown development district has a special taxing area that might be used for [raising extra money]... but short of that I just don't know how we could afford to do it."