Chile: Owls drafted in to fight deadly hantavirus

Chilean white owls Officials are accelerating owl breeding programmes to fight virus-carrying rats

Officials in Chile are turning to an unlikely ally - 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, the Santiago Times newspaper reports. 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. But locals would have to become less superstitious about the birds, officials say.

"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," Aldo Valdivia Ahumada told Santiago Times.

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