Officials in Chile are turning to wild owls as they try to fight a contagious disease that has already caused about 15 deaths, it seems. Owls are the natural predators of the rats carrying the deadly hantavirus.
Long-tailed pygmy rice rats transmit the virus to humans as they come into contact with campers in the forest, while foraging for bamboo. But forest fires during Chile's summer months have forced the rats into urban areas, making more people sick. The disease does not affect the rats themselves.
Chile's forest service says it wants to increase the population of Chilean white owls and lesser horned owls, so it can act as a "biologicial regulator" that will curb the spread of disease-carrying rats. Researchers have built installations to provide safe, comfortable places to nest and breed for the nocturnal predators at the Reserva Nacional Lagos Peñuelas, southeast of Valparaíso.
Administrator of the reserve Aldo Valdivia Ahumada said the installations, which are simple wooden boxes, house an average of three owls a piece. But locals would have to become less superstitious about the birds.
"If an owl hooted near a house, it used to mean that someone would die in that house. But in reality it is the opposite - the owls are actually protecting homes," Ahumada added.