A Green Desert
I have to admit that I actually quite like insects, they fascinate me, they are often brilliantly coloured and despite being so small seem to send most humans into a frenzy of panic. It astonishes me that these tiny creatures can come in such an array of beauty; something about the miniature form is beguiling. How can so much colour and pattern fit on such a small form.
However there are insects that do not elicit these feelings of wonder. Mosquitoes for one and ticks; both are annoying and can have you in your sick bed. If you have ever been hounded by sweat bees that want to crawl into every corner of your scalp, eyes, nose, ears and mouth you will know what I am talking about when I say they are enough to make you want to dive into a shark infested pool.
But… there is one creature that for me is worse than any of these, one that I cannot tolerate either mentally or physically. The tsetse fly.
My first encounter with tsetse in Central Africa has left me somewhat traumatised. I set off from base camp on a 2hr drive to an old abandoned camp to scavenge some equipment. The car had seen better days and although it had a windscreen it did not have windows. Lovely I thought, it’s hot and it will be nice and airy. The roads were in a bad state, necessitating a top speed of around 30km/hr. The first few km’s were fine then something sharp bit my ankle. Following that the same burning sensation came from my neck then there it was again from my shin instantaneously reappearing, most painfully of all on my temple. I looked around the dash board and it was swarming with about 50 tsetses all of which were clamouring to get to my bare skin and feast on me. They had been sucked through the nonexistent windows and there was nothing I could do to keep them out. All I could do was hold my collar closed whilst driving one handed the rest of the way. By the time I arrived I had welts all over my hands, neck, legs and feet. Yes they had actually crawled into my socks to get at my nice hot blood filled feet. Aarrrrrhhh.
Discomfort aside there is a very real risk to tsetse. They are vectors for a debilitating disease, sleeping sickness medically known as trypanosomosis. The disease effects both wild and domestic animals and humans. Whilst wild animals have a tolerance to the disease cattle do not. 3 million are thought to die a year across sub-Saharan Africa. Sleeping sickness in humans is often fatal if not treated although the death rate has been vastly reduced with modern medicines.
Historically areas of intense tsetse fly activity were not cultivated by humans leaving large fertile areas of the African continent as so called green deserts. Although a terrible burden for the human population it was good news for wild animals. The area of Central African Republic where I worked was one such place. It should have been teaming with wildlife but it wasn’t. In fact it was full of cattle during the dry season. The cattle herders are arriving in ever increasing numbers from Sudan trying to find respite from the desertification of their own lands. So how can this be? How can they survive the obvious tsetse infestation? It is all down drugs and motivation. The cattle must be shot full of drugs in order to survive the tsetse. A lot of these drugs are supplied by aid agencies trying to stop the human crisis developing but this inadvertently turns into a wildlife crisis. Not only do the herders now spend 4 months a year with their cattle competing alongside wildlife for resources but the herders are decimating the wildlife through poaching. They kill as much as they can, drying it to take back to Sudan and sell. It has become a major trade route and next to the armed gangs who extort protection from the families of herders the next richest guys working the route are the medicine sellers. Without the medicine the cattle die and the whole thing collapses.
Depressing I know but it does put the tsetse in context. Perhaps they played a very important role limiting the use of fertile land by over consumptive mammals. Once I learned their role in keeping humans out of wilderness areas I was a little more forgiving of their painful bites. Though when you have hundreds of bites all over you there is always that niggling worry of illness. Thankfully I escaped with nothing more than some ugly, very itchy swellings and a new understanding of the complexities involved with wildlife conservation.