Be wary of cobra effect in rat campaign

In the recent effort to reduce the rat population, the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) announced a RM3 offer for every rat caught dead or alive. This campaign has no cap or budget limit.

If successful, the campaign could be extended to other parts of Petaling Jaya.

Though this may seem clever, the idea of giving a reward or compensation in exchange for a pest animal is nothing new and has more often than not lead to the opposite intended result.

This is called the Cobra Effect, named after a botched campaign by the British during colonial times in Delhi, India, when they offered bounties to reduce the city’s worrying numbers of cobras. Though initially a success, overtime, they saw an increase in cobra number instead.

This was due to the sly efforts of an innovative few who began breeding cobras in exchange for the monetary rewards. Because of this, the programme was ultimately scrapped.

A similar incident occurred in Vietnam during the French colonial era, this time with the animal of our subject matter – rats. The French offered rewards for every dead rat, whereby citizens were only required to produce a rat’s tail in exchange for financial returns.

Again, the policy backfired as there were no signs of the rat population declining. It didn’t take long for tail-less rats to be spotted running around Hanoi, deliberately left alive to thrive and multiply.

And once again, there were cunning entrepreneurs who took advantage of the incentive scheme and began farming rats, which ultimately increased the overall rat population.

Back to today’s context, it is possible for both of above instances to manifest itself in Malaysia.

Although the idea by MBPJ is well intentioned, it has the potential to do more harm than good.

Lessons from history have taught us that such policies are likely to result in an increase in the rat population. This is the risk with incentive-based programmes. If the public can find ways to abuse the system, they probably will.

The MBPJ campaign will run for a two-month period, but there is no telling what could happen within that period. Rats have a gestation period of less than a month. That’s more than enough time for someone to develop some cunning ideas, especially if the programme is continued.

More than a month into the campaign, response has thus far been positive with more rats collected than expected – perhaps unsurprisingly. Could this have been a result of the Cobra Effect? This is something the PJ Council needs to be wary about.

Perhaps there are other ways MBPJ and other local councils can achieve the goal of reducing the rat population. Even the rat poison idea could have unintended environmental effects to wildlife with poisoned dead rats lying around.

MBPJ could still take in rats for humane culling as Petaling Jaya residents could be less inclined to kill the pesky rodents themselves, but without reward. Whatever the case, when there are financial incentives involved, there will be some clever people out there who will find ways to exploit the system.

VOON ZHEN YI
Research Analyst
Centre for Public Policy Studies

Article published in The Star.

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