A praise poem for the humble tsetse fly

1610_man

I AM often asked why I have such a love affair with Central and East Africa, and Zambia in particular. My recent trip through Zambia cemented that love affair, and I am now seriously thinking of leaving a vehicle permanently in Lusaka to save me the eight to 10 days of driving there and back that it takes from Cape Town.

The bigger answer really is that it is wonderful travelling through a country where the people are universally welcoming and overwhelmingly friendly, where life is lived at a much simpler level than in South Africa, and I can indulge my inner Luddite, forgetting about the existence of cellphones, laptops, the internet, e-mail and television. Twitter and tweet is what birds do, and you poke your fire.

But above all, it is the sense of peace, and of the unexpected, that you get when you are in the great wild places of Africa. And it makes for good stories.

We were sitting around the fire on the deck at Mukambi Plains Camp on the Busanga Plains in the Kafue National Park, and the lodge manager, conservation biologist Tyrone McKeith, was bemoaning the destruction of his computer. “These lion cubs came into my office and starting eating my computer cables, they destroyed my CDs, it was a case of a mega bite and a terror bite.”

A couple of weeks earlier, Tyrone heard a commotion late at night. A lioness had killed a red lechwe next to the deck and when he shone a torch on her, she charged, leaping onto the deck. He managed to dive behind a big, solid Morris chair, and took cover there until she buggered off.

Strangely, one of the things that we have to thank for preserving these wilderness areas is the humble tsetse fly. I love them and hate them. If you’ve never been bitten by a tsetse fly, you won’t know what I’m talking about here. Their bite is as bad as any insect that I have ever encountered, and they always manage to bite in the worst possible places – earlobes, knuckles, the web between your toes or fingers. And it hurts like hell, and then they itch worse than any mosquito bite. Some in our party simply started to swell up and had to take cortisone.

Avon Skin-So-Soft, if applied in generous enough proportions supposedly stops them biting you, and this worked for my buddy, Mike Garnham, but I couldn’t stand the feel of it on my skin, so tried Tabard, which only worked if you sprayed the tsetse while it was biting you. A burning tin of elephant dung suspended from the back of the vehicle stops them swarming there (they swoop down out of the miombo woodlands and hitch a lift on the back of your vehicle, then when you slow down or stop, they swarm in through any open window and blitzkrieg you).

But here’s the thing: if it wasn’t for tsetse flies, there would probably be precious few wildlife and wilderness areas left in Zambia and elsewhere because they keep the cattle out by infecting the domestic animals with nagana, trypanosomiasis. In what was then Southern Rhodesia, and today Zimbabwe, a massive programme of game extermination was undertaken in the 1950s to get rid of tsetse flies and open up the bushveld for cattle ranching. Hundreds of thousands of heads of game were slaughtered.

I came across this snippet from Hansard from the House of Lords of January 21, 1953, when I googled the subject:

The Marquess of Willingdon asked the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Lord Lloyd, what was being done to counter the slaughter of game in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and “to preserve the wild life, which is of inestimable value, both practically and aesthetically, to future generations?”

Lord Lloyd replied: “Measures include the creation of the Kafue National Park, the establishment of game reserves covering 6½ percent of the territory’s land area, the strict control of the purchase of firearms by Africans and the revision of the fauna conservation laws,” to which Lord Winster retorted “is it not the case that five-eighths of the territory in question is under tsetse fly, so that the only meat upon which the native can rely is game meat? If the game is exterminated in this manner, what will the native do for food?”

To which Lord Lloyd replied in part: “Of course, as the noble Lord has mentioned, the tsetse fly comes into this matter, and a certain amount of destruction is necessary, in the interests of the human population, to protect crops and grazing and to control the tsetse fly.”

So bless the tsetse fly, and bring on the Skin-So-Soft and the burning elephant dung.

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