| Microlivestock - Little-Known Small Animals with a Promising Economic Future |
|Part IV : Rodents|
The 10 previous chapters have described some rodent species that show promise as microlivestock. Rodentia, however, is one of the largest families of mammals, and the species highlighted by no means exhaust the possibilities. In this chapter we briefly mention others that deserve consideration and exploratory research. These might prove to be potential resources, at least in localized situations. Several are fast nearing extinction and they deserve protection and immediate attention from animal scientists.
In the high Andes of South America are found the short-tailed chinchilla (Chinchilla brevicaudata) and the long-tailed chinchilla (Chinchilla lanigera). These plump little rodents have fur that is possibly the thickest, softest, and warmest of any animal's.
On the surface they would seem to be ideal candidates for microlivestock in Third World regions. Indeed, in recent years chinchilla-rearing has been successfully carried out in northern India. However, raising these animals for commercial markets is a highly specialized and costly business because only rare and expensive breeding stock produces top-quality pelts, and all other pelts are worthless in today's marketplace.
These guinea-pig-sized animals have round ears, a bushy tail, and range from 25 to 50 cm long. Adult males rarely weigh more than 500 g, but females may weigh up to 800 g.
The pacarana (Dinomys branickii) is the third-largest living rodent— only capybaras and some beavers are larger. But little is known about this seldom-encountered, forest-dwelling species. Nevertheless, pacaranas appear to be likely candidates for domestication. They are amazingly even-tempered and peaceful, and become surprisingly tame.
Because these animals are endangered they are unlikely candidates for microlivestock in the short run, but their large size and good meat could be the stimulus for an international effort to study, protect, and rear them in large numbers before it is too late.
Pacaranas are found along the eastern foothills of the Andes, including parts of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Their area of potential use is in Latin America and the Caribbean.
It would be advantageous for livestock scientists to investigate this species in captivity. Studies are needed of the animal's general biology, including its nutritional requirements, reproductive capacity, behavior, and physiology. For wildlife specialists, there is a compelling need to protect this species.
Scattered through the dry lands of eastern and southern Africa - on numerous grasslands, plains, fossil lake beds, hill slopes, and floodplains - is the springhare (or springhaas). With its powerful hind legs, tiny forelegs, upright stance, and hopping gait, it looks something like a tiny kangaroo. It is commonly seen at night, eyes glowing a characteristic red in the headlights.
This animal is an important source of food and skins for rural peoples throughout southern Africa. In Botswana, it is the principal bushmeat in the human diet.
Springhares are 35-40 cm long and weigh 3-4 kg. There is one species (Pedetes capensis) and two subspecies: the East African springhare and the Cape springhare (formerly Pedetes cafer).
The rock cavy (Kerodon rupestris) is closely related to the guinea pig and occurs in the impoverished semiarid region of northeastern Brazil. It is large and lean and has a face somewhat resembling a dog's. It is hunted extensively and is an important source of meat for country people, who consider it a delicacy.
This creature might be suitable as a microlivestock. It consumes leaves and bark, and breeds well in captivity. Famine is a serious periodic problem in the often-drought-stricken area, and protein deficiency is common. The rock cavy, like the guinea pig, may be amenable to domestication and may be able to provide the people with better nutrition. However, it is difficult to keep in a cage because it moves fast, climbs well, and easily slips out.
Because these rodents occur in rare and patchily distributed habitats, they are in desperate need of protection, whether or not they prove to have any long-term utility.
A smaller relative of the mare (page 256), the salt-desert cavy (Dolichotis salinicola) is rabbitlike in appearance and behavior. It has large ears and eyes, long legs, and a short tail. It lacks the mare's white rump patch.
This animal inhabits dry, salty areas of the Chaco desert, particularly areas of dry, woody brush. Specifically, it is found in the saline western Chaco of Paraguay and northwestern Argentina, as well as in the extreme south of Bolivia. It is about 45 cm long and weighs up to 4 kg.
Although it might make a useful microlivestock in its native habitat, the salt-desert cavy breeds rapidly and can cause much devastation; it should never be introduced to new regions.
The salt-desert cavy's life in the wild is largely unknown; however, some have been successfully raised and bred in zoos. Exploratory research on keeping and managing these little creatures is warranted.
As noted earlier (page 193), it has been estimated that 42 peoples of various cultures eat rodents. Most of these eat locally available species, some of which are listed below. Whether any have long-term usefulness is uncertain, but study of them in the wild and in captivity could result in some interesting and valuable scientific discoveries.
Solomon Islands Rodents
The Solomon Islands in the southwest Pacific are home to a collection of six rare giant rodents that live in the rainforest canopy. At one time they were important food items. Archeologists have dug up tens of thousands of rodent bones on sites where people lived as long as 30,000 years ago. These mysterious animals were classified last century, but most have not been seen by biologists for decades. However, one, the thinking rat (Solomys sapientis), was rediscovered in 1987 - the first time it had been reported seen since 1901. The others may also be inhabiting the dense and undisturbed forests.'
The thinking rat was located on the island of Santa Isabel. It proved to be gentle, unafraid, and friendly. It lives in the forest canopy, weighs up to 1 kg, and feeds on nuts and fruits. Efforts to build up the population are urgently needed. The other species should also be sought.
Such animals could be a resource for rainforest production (perhaps in the manner of butterfly farming in Papua New Guinea2). They may never be plentiful enough to be food sources again, but they could nonetheless become valuable. Zoos the world over are likely first customers for these scientific curiosities if production can be boosted and the populations secured.
Giant New Guinea Rat
The giant New Guinea rat (Mallomys rothschildi) is often eaten in New Guinea. It is little known to science but is odorless and easily tamed. It grows so fast that it becomes as big as a guinea pig even before it is weaned. It feeds on a wide variety of tubers and vegetable products. An attractive species native to mountain forests, it has a long heavy tail and black fur with white ticking.
Porcupines, brush-tailed porcupines, and their relatives are distantly related to guinea pigs and are widely consumed as food in tropical regions. Examples are:
- Indian porcupine (Hystrix indica) and other species of South Asia.
- Cape porcupine (H. africaeaustralis) of southern Africa.
- Prehensile-tailed porcupine (Coendou prehensilis), which inhabits Central and South America. These nocturnal creatures live in the thick, leafy crowns of trees or in hollow trees or holes in the ground. Although often belligerent among themselves, they can be very friendly and tame toward humans.
The kiore (Rattus exulans) was formerly an important component of the diet of most Polynesians, including the Maoris of New Zealand. It has been successfully reared in captivity in recent times. Unlike many other rodents, this animal is normally not a scavenger; it is a clean, even fastidious feeder that is basically a vegetarian (flowers, berries, nuts, and seeds) and is reckoned remarkably good eating.
The soft-furred rat (Praomys) is relatively large and slender and is found in the tropical forests of Africa from sea level to more than 3,000 m. Among the most common rodents of the African jungle, it is trapped almost everywhere. It feeds largely on plants, but eats large quantities of ants and other insects. It has been raised successfully in captivity and is eaten by villagers in Malawi.
The giant squirrel (Ratufa bicolor) occurs throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka. It is the largest squirrel on earth, almost the size of a cat. A related species, the palm squirrel (Funambulus), also gets very large. It can crop nuts in the very high treetops that are inaccessible to people. It is widely used as food.
Squirrels of the genus Callosciurus (notably C. notatus and C. prevostii) are significant pests on cocoa, oil palm, and mixed fruit plantations in Southeast Asia. They can be reared and bred on a diet of most types of fruit as long as a little protein, in the form of insects or cooked wheat, is available. The systematic use of this animal may offer a chance to turn a pest to advantage.
Two species of slender-tailed cloud rats (Phlocomys spp.) are found only in southeastern Asia. They live in tree cavities, climb well, and are well adapted to tree life.
One of these (P. cumingi) lives in the northeastern part of Luzon in the Philippines, where it appears to be thriving. It has a large body and long tail and is the largest member of the mouse subfamily.
The other (Crateromys schadenbergi) has long, thick hair and a thick, bushy tail. It lives in the mountainous areas of northern Luzon. A nocturnal animal, it feeds on buds, bark, and fruits.
Both are attractive, even fascinating, creatures that are relentlessly hunted for food. They might make useful livestock in forest situations.
The Cayenne spiny rat (Proechimys guyannensis) is found throughout most of South America. It is tasty, easily kept in captivity, and is popularly used in Colombia for food. A nocturnal animal, it is one of the most common mammals in many areas. It has been raised in captivity on bananas, sweet corn, coconut, grain, and various seeds.3
The bamboo rat (Rhyzomys spp.) is the largest rodent on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia; it weighs 2-4 kg and the body can be as long as 45 cm. It prefers to live in bamboo thickets and is hunted and eaten by many local peoples.
There is a need - in considering any sort of game farming - to relate the animal's "preferred" conditions (range, feed, temperature, etc.) to the varying land and climate types not being effectively utilized. In other words, rather than looking at animals that might be farmed, it might be necessary to consider the terrain and climate and then seek animals that would "do" well under those conditions. One major fault with traditional farming has been the tendency to force traditional livestock onto unsuitable land. This has given rise to numerous serious problems. In many cases the most suitable use of an area is provided by several species grazing together to mutual benefit (e.g., goats and sheep on New Zealand hill country improve grazing for each other if ratios are right).