GAUTENG residents have become quite adept at not only smelling a rat but also spotting one.

Mysterious holes in the grass; scratch and bite marks on household furniture and doors; greasy trails on the walls, droppings and strange noises at night are just some of the tell-tale signs to look for, residents warn.

Some have developed a love-hate relationship with the furry creatures, regarding them as close neighbours while others have resorted to drastic measures to get rid of them.

Their frustrations have not gone unnoticed, with municipalities declaring war on the furry creatures.

Unkempt areas such as taxi ranks have become breeding grounds for rodents, where they coexist with humans, though they prefer to hide and store food in burrows.

Vegetable skins, bones, waste paper and rotting fruit from some of the waste that litters the Wynberg taxi rank, north of Johannesburg, are among the things that they feast on.

"I don't see them as a nuisance. They, just like us, are also trying to survive," says a cleaner at the rank who wished to remain anonymous.

Yet the rodents' uncanny feeding habits have made them an enemy of some of the taxi drivers.

Alex resident Melusi Damoyi said the rats cause some major disruptions.

"They chew through everything, even car wires. They build nests in the engines of cars because of the warmth," he said.

"They are not picky and eat everything from fried chicken to banana peels. They are fat and their coats are shiny as a result."

Damoyi says though the rodents caused disruptions, litterbugs were also to blame.

"The rank does not have enough bins. Hawkers at the rank throw refuse everywhere.

"This creates a breeding ground for the rats," says Damoyi.

According to the Ekurhuleni municipality, which has devised a "five-phase" plan to deal with the rodents, illegal dumping boosts the rats' thriving population.

"The availability of food makes conditions favourable for the rodent population to grow and thrive.

"In dealing with illegal dumping, we will cut the biggest contributing factor to the growing rat problem," says executive director of Ekurhuleni metro municipality's solid waste division Mandla Sithole.

The pests have, however, not only invaded public spaces but also homes, making households vulnerable to diseases such as plague bacillus, salmonella, leptospirosis, lassa fever and rat-bite fever.

Charlotte Moreosele, 84, of Wattville in Ekurhuleni, says rats are no longer a seasonal phenomenon.

"We have rats as big as cats here every day and they want to take over. They burrow holes everywhere, gnaw through dustbins and scratch on doors noisily," she says.

Moreosele's neighbours complain that the rats have "colonised the neighbourhood" by digging tunnels through boundary walls to move from one yard to another.

The streets of Wattville are littered with huge dead rats flattened by cars.

Zina Gina, 27, also of Wattville, says she has been forced to use bricks to barricade boundary walls to ensure the rats do not enter their yard.

"Everywhere there are bricks because we are trying to keep them away," Gina says.

Rat poison, a once-trusted remedy, does not do the trick anymore, residents complain.

"It does not work on the big rats. They seem to be immune," says Moreosele.

Some residents tell macabre tales about babies' fingers and toenails being gnawed at by these furry pests.

"You might put your baby down for a nap and they get bitten," said S'thandwa Twala of Alexandra.

Communications specialist for the City of Johannesburg's health department Nkosinathi Nkabinde says the city has never experienced any outbreak of the diseases caused by rodents.

"We have, however, received reports of rat-bite incidents from all over," Nkabinde says.

Ekurhuleni municipality spokesperson Zweli Dlamini advises homeowners to try to get rid of the rats by changing rat poisons regularly.

"It is important to note that rodents learn from others' mistakes. Therefore it is advisable to change the location of bait stations and also the type of poison from time to time," says Dlamini.

l The Ekurhuleni metropolitan municipality has devised a five-phase plan to eradicate rats and mice.

The plan includes clean-up campaigns to deal with illegal dumping and education campaigns for communities.

It has employed unusual and innovative ways to eradicate the pests, but some of these were not popular with residents.

The municipality introduced owls, whose prey includes small mammals such as rats and mice, but superstitious residents killed the birds.

It also introduced cages for residents to bait and trap the rodents, which Ekurhuleni spokesperson Dlamini thought were useful.

A bucket method, which involves a bucket half-filled with water and sunflower seeds to capture and drown the rats, has been used in experiments in Tembisa.

Dlamini says "starving" the rodents is an effective way of limiting their numbers or even eliminating them completely.

This means disposing of food in "rodent proof" bins and clearing food from pets' bowls, repairing leaking pipes and draining areas where stagnant water builds up, repairing cracks and holes in the house and also removing dense shrubs from the garden and clearing the premises of clutter.