Bugs are more dangerous than big game

By Herman Labuschagne

A look at some of the less-well known dangers creatures who can make life hell in Africa

 

As a boy, I once asked my father what animal he considered to be the most dangerous in Africa. He was one of the pioneering professional hunters and game ranchers in South Africa, so I figured that if anyone ought to know about these things, he would. Ask any professional hunter which animal is more dangerous, and he’ll give you a different story. Each one would have his own personal reasons for believing that either the lion, leopard, buffalo, hippo or elephant would be the most dangerous critter to tangle with. I was expecting something along this line but Dad’s very serious answer came without a moment’s hesitation.

“You know,” he said the great white hunter as his eyes swept across the landscape, “when I was little, I was bitten by a fluffy-tailed mouse once...” 

 

I was too puzzled by this answer to think it was very funny back then, but the older I became, the more I began to understand what he meant. I think about his words often still. Especially this year. As the hot South African summer finally begins to slowly roll over and play dead, the myriads of little critters that make life miserable for their human co-life forms are mercifully beginning to fade into obscurity.  – Until the next season, that is. And boy, am I happy! This summer has been a particularly bad one for bugs. Along with the rare good rains, came droves and droves of insects. For the tourists and hunters that usually come to visit the wild places of Africa during the cool, dry summer months, it is hard to picture what those nightly, full-scale bug-attacks can be like. In a continent where most forms of animal life tends to be bigger, more dangerous and more fierce, it is hard to imagine that the little life-forms could pose a dramatic threat too. Even the wonderful old hunting stories and accounts make little mention of the bug life during the wet summer months. But perhaps this is because that was often the time when the old hunters and explorers would be somewhere on the higher plateaus where they would be drinking rum and writing their memoirs and experiences in a cooler climates where the order of Insecta rules less visibly.

 

For those of us that live in the tropical lowlands year round, though, bugs can make a pretty important topic in our daily conversations. They tend to come in plagues, and each year, we sit and wonder which of Africa’s many bug-plagues would be bestowed upon us for that particular summer. Take the flightless crickets for last year, for instance. About four inches long and about as thick as a big man’s thumb, these little critters bear spikes upon their backs, and look like a miniature version of something from a Steven Spielberg science fiction film. At first, people are intrigued by the fact that these large bugs don’t seem to display any fear of human beings. They don’t bite, and they can’t fly, and are quite harmless. The horror of the wingless crickets, or koringkrieke (“wheat-crickets”) lies in their numbers. Every day they come hobbling out of the surrounding bush, with long antennae extended, ready to crawl up exposed legs, devour vegetable gardens and flowers, or eat the dogs’ food. When they’re little, they look cute, but as they grow and multiply, the horror-factor rises rapidly. When you finally begin to feel that your personal body space being invaded, and decide to finally take action by squashing them underfoot, it is only to find that these wingless critters like nothing better than to eat each other’s corpses. Pretty soon each corps is surrounded by a dozen of its mates. And when you squash those too – as happens on the roads – one quickly find crickets feeding on the corpses of those who had fed on the corpses under then, who in turn, had died being squashed into the corpses of those underneath them... and so on. 

 

The crickets might be loathsome, but at least they’re harmless. Not so with the stinkbugs. The stinkbugs are probably the worst by far. Where the crickets came in their hundreds, the stinkbugs come in their thousands. About the size of a child’s finger-nail, this shiny little black beetle looks neat and innocent until you make the mistake of injuring or squashing one. Then they emit a powerful chemical stench which could only be described as akin to the smell of bug-spray. You know? That perfume-like chemical smell which warns: “Keep away! I’m poisonous!” And poisonous they are. A woman in town spent a few weeks with a really bad stomach condition recently. A stinkbug had fallen into her juice, and instead of throwing it all out, she had merely scooped the critter out and continued to drink. Apparently they contain some kind of enzyme which really disrupts the digestive system for a long time. Funny thing with the stinkbugs is that they only crawl out at night, after about 7:30 pm, and by ten o’clock they’re usually gone again. Oh, and also only on dark night. When there’s moon around, the stinkbugs hide. The problem with these little objects of horror, is that they are attracted to light. And there is no way to keep them out of a house.

 

Many a night begins with a shout of: “The stinkbugs are out tonight!”

 

And then it means closing all doors and windows despite the heat, and often extinguishing all but the feeblest of lights inside. Ever tried having a barbeque outside with thousands of the most incredibly smelling bugs dropping into your hair, food and down your neck? It doesn’t sound like hell, but when they become your constant companion – you’ll know what hell can be like.

 

And then, of course there are the red roman spiders. Non-poisonous, but the size of a young child’s hand. They run around at night at the most dizzying speed, hunting the creatures of the night. They’re also attracted to light and enjoy hunting people’s homes for a change. They’re usually too fast to swat, but if you do manage to hit one, they invariably explode into a soft, brown evil-smelling mass. Oh, and corner one, and you’ll get a bite from their powerful jaws which might very well leave some scars to tell your children about one day! You know, I know a famous South African hunter and sports writer, who once found himself with one of these brutes between him and the exit of his tent. He might not be particularly proud of the fact, but as far as I know this man is still the only hunter who has actually saved himself from such a nightmare by bagging himself a spider with a 12-gauge shotgun.

 

There are poisonous spiders too, of course. But they’re usually like intelligence agents: They’re small, inconspicuous, hard to spot, and tend to bite you unprovoked and when you least expect any trouble. Their brothers, the scorpions are well-known of course. Their sting is usually painful, but rarely deadly. But not many people know about the millipedes which can grow up to about eight inches long, may glow in the dark, and can deliver an extremely painful bite too. I bumped into one just last night – and was glad I wasn’t walking around in the dark with bare feet.

 

But to get back to dad’s story about the mouse... Maybe one can understand the threat of the small critters a little better if one considers the case of one of the smallest: The Anopheles mosquito. Most hunters know that the lowly malaria mosquito kills more people than any other critter that can be seen without the aid of a microscope. They kills more people than do all of the big five combined, and multiplied several times! Pole your makorro through the swamps of Botswana one night, and you’ll hear them rise with the sound of death on their wings... Sit still, and they will literally suck you dry overnight. Or what about the tsetse fly that continues to kill man and beast in vast parts of Africa? And heaven forbid that we should forget the much-feared but frequently little bilharzia bug, who is passed on to humans via snails in fresh water. Like the great sports writer, Capstick once warned his readers: “Bilharzia – that homily little snail fluke that may only quit living in your system when you do.”

 

Yes, all of these creatures are present in the Africa which I call home. There are scores more, of course. Ferocious African bees, hornets and wasps, and flies. And clouds of minute little gnats, so thick it looks like fog. Mercifully though, nature has decreed it so that they only surface in great numbers during the summer months. Sometimes their danger lies in the power of their bite or sting, and sometimes in the sheer horror of their appearance or numbers. The bugs of Africa may be rarely talked about, but let no man say that the big game of Africa are more dangerous than the little critters. For those that doubt the validity of these words, I cordially invite you to spend one summer in the African bushveld. If you’re an entomologist, this should be the nearest you’ll come to finding heaven on earth. But if not... you’ll doubtlessly learn what it is like to fear a flightless cricket or fluffy-tailed mouse more than an elephant.