BEIZHOUZI, CHINA — The worst summer flooding in years has claimed more than 400 lives and wreaked billions of dollars in damage in central China. Here in the villages around Dongting Lake, rising waters have brought a plague of biblical proportions: an invasion of 2 billion mice.
The rodents have been on the march in Hunan province since late June, when waters submerged mouse holes surrounding China's second-largest lake.
People have tried to keep the pests away from farmland by clubbing them, setting traps, digging ditches and laying down poison. Dozens of tons of dead mice have been found, the government reported, but not before rice, corn, cotton and other crops in this poor region had been chewed up. Officials have sounded a health alert.
"They are like troops advancing," farmer Zhang Luo said Sunday, recounting how he whacked hundreds with a shovel. Zhang, 40, and his forebears have battled mice for 100 years in this area, but he said it had never been this bad. A stench rose from the dead rodents in his fields.
The swelling of Dongting Lake came after a prolonged drought. The Three Gorges Dam also had reduced flows from the Yangtze River, but when the dam gate opened to relieve pressure from the heavy rains, waters gushed into Dongting.
The lake's water level has begun to recede, and on Sunday, a Hunan agricultural official declared that the rodent problem was largely under control. But many people were bracing for more rain as China enters the main flood season.
As of Thursday, 403 Chinese had died, 105 were missing and 3.2 million people had been relocated because of the floods, the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters said.
Predators killed off
Dongting's disaster was as much man-made as natural, experts say. People have overexploited the rich lands around the lake, reducing natural habitat. Further upsetting the ecosystem, poachers have greatly reduced the population of one of the rodent's natural enemies, the snake.
"Snakes became a popular dish in Hunan, and many were preyed upon," said Deng Xuejian, a biology professor at Hunan Normal University in Changsha, the provincial capital.
Deng said there were no reports of disease from the infestation. But he remained concerned about the dead rodents littering the land.
"If left in the wild, they will pollute the environment again," he said. "They should be treated collectively."
Hunan provincial officials said they had taken appropriate measures.
"We put all those poisoned mice into woven bags, bury them on the spot and sterilize them by spraying some lime" around the area, said Cao Zhiping, director of Yiyang Plant Protection Station of Hunan Province.
Cao said a lot of the mice, which are larger than the typical mouse in the United States, had begun to return to their holes.
"In Hunan, it rained a little today and quite a lot yesterday," he said Sunday. "If the Three Gorges Dam needs to open its gate to release floodwaters again, it's possible that they might come back. That's why we have people patrol ... day and night these days."
At most risk, perhaps, are villages around the northern part of Dongting, where mice were scampering in daylight, chomping on the bark of poplar trees.
Dead mice were strewn in ditches and along dikes and banks of the lake.
A dark wave
Xu Kai, 14, recalled standing on the second-floor balcony of his house in the town of Beizhouzi and watching in horror as the green and brown slopes 150 yards away turned black. As the mice moved toward his family's farmland, Xu ran out with others and grabbed a thick piece of bamboo. He said he struck the mice until his shoulders hurt, killing three or four with each blow.
On Sunday, he and his grandmother looked out from the balcony and tallied the devastation.
Half the corn crops were destroyed. All the watermelons were lost. The mice had eaten much of the eggplant and other vegetables.
His grandmother, Chen Lianxi, 62, pointed to the thick cotton fields. She said they were a virtual cemetery for the mice the family had killed.
Chen said her family of five lived on their crops, earning about $1,200 last year. About a quarter of that went toward school tuition and expenses for Xu. Some was used to pay off a loan to neighbors for the two-story tile house that the family built 10 years ago for $6,000.
Money is one thing, she said. Chen fears for her grandson's health.
"That's what I don't know," she said. "There are dead mice everywhere."
Cao Jun in The Times' Shanghai Bureau contributed to this report.