A danger when we alter nature

It is incredible the manner in which we all seem to be interrelated—not just we humans, but also animals and even insects.

When the Chinese Communists came to power in 1948 it was after half a century of civil war. There had been times when China was saturated with infectious diseases. Things like tuberculosis, plague, cholera, polio, malaria, smallpox, schistosomiasis, and hookworm.  Infant mortality ran as high as 30 per cent.

Mao Tse Tung singled out four pests. Mosquitoes that transmitted malaria. Rodents that spread plague. Swallows that ate grain. And houseflies that spread germs.

Mao reasoned that eliminating swallows and other small birds would mean more grain for people. He reasoned wrongly. Birds, it turned out, ate more than rice. They also ate insects.

But by then the obedient masses had ganged up against China’s birds. People in villages and school children made such a commotion wherever sparrows gathered that the birds could not settle. People banged pots and pans. They fired guns and set off fireworks. The birds had to keep flying until they died of exhaustion.

And the locusts, freed of their natural predators, gobbled up far more agricultural produce than the sparrows ever did.

In China, it is still called the Great Famine. An estimated 36 million people starved to death – six times as many as died in the Nazi Holocaust. People ate anything – tree bark, roots, animal feces… Some sources claim they even resorted to cannibalism.

In one sense, Mao’s solution to China’s public health crisis worked. It was estimated that, along with one billion sparrows, “1.5 billion rats, 100 million kilograms of flies and 11 million kilograms of mosquitoes” were destroyed. Some infectious diseases were eradicated; others had their incidence reduced.

It was, as a magazine article summed up, “one of the most successful public health campaigns in history – in terms of establishing a goal and clearly achieving it…

But it came at an extraordinarily grave cost for the Chinese, ecologically and demographically.”

The truth that emerges seems to be, “tamper with nature’s balance of prey and predator at your peril.”

There will always be some unexpected consequences.