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The Chinese government may ban the rearing of huge rats it previously paid people to farm to lift themselves out of poverty. In February authorities in the country signalled that the consumption and farming of wild animals would be banned temporarily.

The proposal followed the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which is believed to have originated in a wet market in the city of Wuhan. Although most researchers familiar with the virus and trade have suggested pangolins and bats are the source of the COVID-19 strain, at least one scientist has suggested bamboo rats are to blame.

Referred to as ‘zhu shu’ in Mandarin, the large rodents have distinct round cheeks and are considerably sizeable. An adult bamboo rat can weigh five kilograms and grow to 45 centimetres long. Their heft and signature taste has earned them a place at the heart of Chinese cuisine for thousands of years.

The rodents were a favoured dish in the Zhou Dynasty, which ran from 1046 to 256BC, and are rumoured to help improve spleen function. While the rats have long remained a minor part of Chinese culinary culture, they were shot into the limelight in 2018 when two young men started videoing themselves breeding the rodents.

The Nua Nong Brothers gave the unusual mammals a brand boost with recipe videos that attracted millions of views. Their work inspired a nation and led the topic ‘100 reasons to eat bamboo rats’ to trend on Weibo.

When the ruling Communist Party put the brakes on the wild animal market in China, there were thought to be around 25million bamboo rats being reared for food. Many of these were in the south of the country in areas such as Guangzi, where there are thought to be 100,000 people raising 18million of the rodents, China News Weekly reports.

One month before the industry came to a halt Dr Zhong Nanshan, China’s leading epidemiologist, warned that the epidemic may be linked to bamboo rats or badgers.

If more evidence pins the blame on the large rodent, then they may remain outlawed in the long term. While this might be welcomed by those looking to avoid another pandemic, it will likely prove costly for bamboo rat farmers