Why you should care
Because Thai farmers once gave a lot more than a rat’s arse.
In the aptly named town of Ratchaburi, an hour and a half outside Bangkok, an angry group gathers at a gate of what looks like an average house. It’s October 1999, and they’re demanding that the property owner honor her contracts. But they’re too late, because the woman in question has already fled. These Thai farmers were expecting to complete an unusual business arrangement in which the rat breeder would buy back — at a decent profit — the offspring of rats she’d sold them.
Twenty years ago, rat peddlers convinced poor Thai farmers to purchase and raise river rats, aka coypu, promising big returns from the sale of their fur, meat and other body parts. We’re not talking any old rat cousins — these were nutria, rodents the size of small dogs that look like a cross between a rat and a beaver, complete with webbed feet, white muzzles, huge yellowed teeth and strangely placed nipples.
They were imported into Thailand in the mid-1990s by an unnamed entrepreneurial Taiwanese businessman, according to reports at the time, who capitalized on the booming Thai economy and the appeal of easy wealth in the countryside. Local nutria peddlers bought the rat packs and then sold them to poor farmers, marketing the scheme via billboards and radio announcements. Hundreds responded, and the semiaquatic rats quickly multiplied. At first, the get-rich-quick plan seemed to be working: A rat promoter would sell a pair of breeding rats to a farmer for around 20,000 baht, roughly $500 then, and buy back baby rodents for up to $100 each. Even Thailand’s deputy permanent secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture at the time, Dr. Suthiporn Chirapanda, called it a “very attractive” return.
When the farmers realized they’d been duped, they … released the nutria into the wild, unleashing a big, yellow-toothed problem on the environment.
Thailand wasn’t the first to join this rat race; traders had tried making a go of nutria worldwide. Back in the 1800s, people began trapping them in their native South America and selling the fur, at one point seeing demand outpace supply. Smelling an opportunity, the French launched their own farms, and Quebec and other North American cities followed suit. In the 1930s, Louisiana-based Tabasco sauce inventor Edmund McIlhenny even got involved, and for quite a while, rat fur coats were a thing. These critters were soon in every corner of the world — Japan, Kenya, Iran, China, Israel, Poland and the “Stans,” according to nutria expert Jacoby Carter, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Today, he says, nutria can be found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.
Nutria’s popularity spread owing to practicalities, says Keith Kaplan of the Fur Information Council of America, pointing to how its “warm and hearty fur protects against the elements.” But it’s not fancy, like rabbit, minx or fox, so nutria often gets used in linings rather than for showy materials. Carter, meanwhile, says demand for nutria plummeted in the U.S. and elsewhere. While fancy fur stuck around, Americans lost interest in nutria fur, apart from using it in utilitarian materials, by the mid-1950s, and by the 1980s global fur prices dropped drastically. But in Thailand’s tropical climate, the market for nutria fur never took off, and very few Thais craved rat meat either, leaving the fast-multiplying rodents to quickly outpace demand. By 1997, with the advent of the Asian financial crisis, the nutria scheme collapsed alongside Thailand’s economy, leaving farmers with debt and an overabundance of hungry rats. The situation became so dire that the Thai government stepped in, banning nutria imports by the end of that year.
The farmers were angry, and at least a few peddlers fled, leaving their rats to die of starvation. When the farmers realized they’d been duped, they did what their international counterparts had done before them: released the nutria into the wild, unleashing a big, yellow-toothed problem on the environment. Nutria eat a lot of vegetation — nearly a quarter of their body weight every day — and they also have a lot of sex, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates can translate into one pair of nutria creating a 16,000-strong family tree within three years.
Unsurprisingly, populations exploded — so much so that river rats were named one of the worst invasive species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Invasive Species Specialist Group. Global eradication teams have spent millions trying to eliminate these pests — at one point Louisiana was paying hunters to kill a million nutria every year; today the state targets up to 400,000 annually. But in Thailand, extermination programs don’t really jive with the Buddhist ethos, even though the nutria wreak havoc on crops like rice paddies, a vital source of exports.
Thais continued trying to popularize meat and fur from the growing menace for many years. Though rat fur coats never caught on in the muggy tropical country, rat meat did have its 15 minutes of fame. In 2010 Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods sampled some nutria on a televised visit to rural Thailand. And he’s not the only one to have a more liberal palate. Remember that abandoned breeding ground in Ratchaburi? Some enterprising locals sneaked into it and stole a few nutria for what they said would become a protein-rich meal.