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South African Giant Rats Risk Alert


Circulating email claims that an alert has been issued in South Africa regarding a dangerous infestation of African Giant Pouched Rats, which are thought to be responsible for the recent deaths of two young children in townships.

© dedMazay

Brief Analysis

Such an alert has indeed been issued. News reports indicate that rat attacks have been responsible for the deaths of two infants in townships near Cape Town and Johannesburg. Giant Pouched Rats are suspected as the species of rodent responsible for these deaths although that suspicion has not yet been conclusively proven.


Subject: Risk Alert Risk Alert

South Africa has issued alert with regard to an infestation of Giant rats.. All staff living in the areas mentioned in the notice below and surrounding areas are to take note.

African Giant Pouched Rats are the biggest in the world. They are nocturnal, omnivorous - eating both plants and animals - and can produce up to 50 young a year. Whilst these rats are sometimes kept as pets or used by the military to detect landmines, please note that these are not domesticated animals, they are highly aggressive by nature and should be not be approached. Contact the department of Health or the city Health inspectors to report.

The name of Hazard: Animal (African Giant Pouched Rats) attack, fatal
Area affected: Western Cape and Johannesburg
Status: Confirmed

The monster rodents are as big as cats are thought to have killed two babies in the townships. The giant rats grow up to three-foot including their tails - and have front teeth over an inch long. Three-year-old Lunathi Dwadwa was killed as she slept in her parent's shack in a slum outside Cape Town this week. Another baby girl died in a similar rat attack, on the same day, but this time in the Soweto township near Johannesburg. Police officer Bongani Mhlongo said: "We were called to the scene of the death of an infant due to a rat attack on Monday morning at around 9.00am. "The mother of the child was arrested on charges of culpable homicide and negligence." The deaths appear to be part of a spate of deadly rat attacks in the country. Last month, 77-year-old grandmother Nomathemba Joyi died after giant rats chewed off the right side of her face. The killer rodents are believed to be African Giant Pouched Rats - a species distantly related to UK rats but native to sub-Saharan Africa.

Detailed Analysis

According to this alert, which circulates via email and has also been posted to a number of blogs and social media websites, South African residents should be aware of the danger posed by aggressive African Giant Pouched Rats. The message claims that two young children were killed by the rodents in townships near Cape Town and Johannesburg.

The message takes the form of a “Risk Alert”, apparently issued to staff of a government department. Contact numbers included in the message point back to the Department of Health and Social Development in South Africa’s Gauteng Province. I have attempted to contact the Department for comment on the current status of the alert, but have not yet received a response.

Giant Pouched Rat

A version of the alert was also published on the RSOE Emergency and Disaster Information Service on 7th June 2011 and listed as a Biological Hazard.

The fatal rat attacks have been reported in admittedly somewhat sensationalized news articles published by several news outlets, including the UK’s, The Sun and The Daily Mail and Australia’s The Daily Telegraph. In fact, the information in the alert is apparently derived from The Sun report as are reports published in other news outlets.

Thus, the alert is valid in the sense that fatal rodent attacks have indeed occurred in South African townships in recent weeks and South African residents would do well to take heed of this. It should be noted, however, that while Giant Pouched Rats are suspected to be the species responsible for the fatal attacks, this suspicion remains unverified. South Africa has also endured plagues of “ordinary” rats in recent months. Such rats are known to attack sleeping infants, especially in poorer areas.

Giant pouched rats do grow very large and are counted as among the largest muroids in the world. Despite the name, scientifically, they are not considered to be true rats. Wikipedia notes:
Giant pouched rats are only distantly related to the true rats, but are instead part of an ancient radiation of African and Malagasy muroids in the family Nesomyidae. They are named due to their large cheek pouches.
Giant pouched rats are easily tamed and are popular as pets. They have even been used to help humans by sniffing out landmines and other explosives and detecting Tuberculosis.

Last updated: 23rd June 2011
First published: 23rd June 2011
By Brett M. Christensen
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