Nobody likes living in a house riddled with vermin. Yet sometimes it simply can’t be helped. Despite our advanced technology and knowledge with regards to pest control, it’s still a grand feat to have and maintain a fully pest-free home. However as annoying as they can be, pests do have a purpose – nature, with all its locusts and flies and rats, is as good as it is. Human intervention, although with good intentions may sometimes end in catastrophe, as seen here.
During the 1950’s the People’s Republic of China was still fresh from decades of war and bouts of famine or sickness. Fatigued from the constant turmoil, the Chinese longed to get back on their feet and transform their country from an agrarian nation into a Marxist, (communist) industrial powerhouse that would be capable of rivaling the world powers of the time and bridge the economical gap they were suffering. In order to kick-start the major change, Chinese leader Mao Zedong implemented the “Great Leap Forward” plan in 1958, and with it came the “Four Pests Campaign.”
The Great Leap Forward, meant to be the program that would elevate China’s status, proved to be its downfall instead. The plan’s concentration on industrialization was extreme to a fault; the diverted resources and manpower to the likes of steel manufacturing and construction projects left the agricultural sector of the country to suffer. Already burdened by a lack of food even before the Great Leap campaign, the loss of support in addition to the prohibition on private farming only exacerbated the chronic food shortages. This led to the Great Famine which lasted from 1958-1962, with a death toll of upwards of 30 million people.
However, it might not have been so bad had not the Great Pests campaign been implemented. Mao Zedong called for the complete extermination of the four main pests he deemed to be too unhygienic to let live, namely mosquitoes, flies, rats, and sparrows. Back then, the thought of disrupting the natural ecosystem did not give Mao pause; in fact, according to environmental activist Dai Qing, “Mao knew nothing about animals. [..] He just decided that the four pests should be killed.” And killed they were.
Although the reasons for being against the first three pests are obvious, the sparrow requires a little bit of explanation. As mentioned, China already had food issues. Unfortunately, the Eurasian Tree Sparrows’ diet included grain, which the regime thought were better off being fed to the people instead. Understandably the Chinese felt as if their already meager food supplies were being preyed on, so the hunt for sparrows proved the most vicious with everyone in on the war, children included.
The government encouraged – even rewarded – destructive behavior against the so-called pests with non-material rewards and recognition. Often people would make noise (by banging pots and pans) to scare the sparrows from landing, forcing them to fly until they simply fell from exhaustion. Citizens also actively pursued the birds’ homes, destroying their eggs and killing their chicks as well. They did this without the knowledge that sparrows were natural predators of other insects that feasted on grains, resulting in a locust swarm a year later that did way more damage to the crops as opposed to allowing the sparrows to stay.
Mao quickly reformed the campaign to preserve what little of the birds were left, replacing sparrows with bed bugs, but unfortunately it was too late. The ecosystem had been irrevocably impaired. This in combination with China’s inefficient policies, poor weather, and a drought proved devastating to the people with crop harvests in 1959 going for as low as 15%. Ironically, crops were only able to recover to previous levels after the Great Leap Campaign.
This just goes to show how improper pest control and tampering with nature can lead to dire consequences. If and when you find yourself being plagued by any kind of pest, be sure to call professionals instead of handling them yourself as inexperience and inadequate knowledge may lead you to worsen the situation instead.