China on war footing against invasion of plague-carrying gerbils

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The Independent Online

Unnoticed by the outside world, a vast army has been ploughing a path through an area as large as Switzerland.

Unnoticed by the outside world, a vast army has been ploughing a path through an area as large as Switzerland.

Its soldiers have at their disposal a massive underground system, extensive food supplies and survival skills that would be the envy of the SAS.

They have excellent communications systems, although these rely not on cyberspace and satellites but the more traditional method of whistling.

Some even carry a biological weapon of mass destruction. And they colonise tirelessly as they advance.

Washington has done nothing. There have been no invasions, no damning United Nations resolutions, no dodgy dossiers, no packs of playing cards bearing pictures of their whiskery, beady-eyed faces.

The war waged on the far side of the planet by the Great Gerbil will go down in history as one of the least covered conflicts of the 21st century.

But yesterday, the China Daily newspaper finally broke the story. It revealed that burrowing by Great Gerbils ( Rhombomys Opimus) and other rodents has damaged 11.76 million acres of grassland in western China - an area about the size of Switzerland.

About 81,500 acres have been destroyed. In some places as many as 790 burrow holes have been found per 2.5 acres. The newspaper quoted Xiong Ling, a regional official in charge of locust and rodent control, declaring that the country faced the "most severe rodent disaster since 1993".

Henceforth, the paper said, eagles will be dispatched to the affected area by the authorities in the hope that the birds will eat the gerbils, wiping them out at the peak of their reproductive cycle. To assist them, the government plans to use poison as well.

These are ruthless tactics. But the rodents are not quite the same as the winsome balls of fluff which you find in cages in British pet shops.

Great Gerbils can grow up to 16in from fang to tail. They can withstand the worst temperatures Asia - from Iran to Mongolia - can throw at them.

The British National Gerbil Society speaks of a rodent which is not without charm. They appear sociable, sexually broad-minded, enthusiastic gardeners and foodies. (They love nothing better than amassing piles of food up to a metre high and three-metres wide.)

Yet their minus points cannot be overlooked. Quite apart from their cavalier handling of China's environment, they are also known to be carriers of the bubonic plague.