BEIJING (Reuters) – China is deploying eagles to control giant gerbils that have damaged an area of grassland larger than Switzerland.

The China Daily said on Tuesday burrowing by great gerbils (Rhombomys opimus) and other rodents had damaged 11.76 million acres of grassland in the far west. About 81,540 acres had been completely destroyed.

“It has been the most severe rodent disaster since 1993,” Xiong Ling, an official with the region’s headquarters for controlling locusts and rodents, was quoted as saying.

To combat the onslaught, the government was using poison and raising eagles to eat the burrowers now reaching the peak of their reproductive cycle, the paper said, adding as many as 790 burrow holes had been found per hectare in some areas.

Great gerbils, found in many parts of Central Asia, can grow up to 16 inches from head to tail, the Web site of Britain’s National Gerbil Society at www.gerbils.co.uk said.

In addition to being an agricultural pest, the gerbils are known to carry bubonic plague, it said.