Stories and Traveltips

ID #1216

Encounters with Tsetse Fly, Moremi Game Reserve, Okavango Swamps, Northern Botswana, Southern Africa.

Tsetse fly played an important part in the history of Southern Africa. While wildlife and nguni cattle are immune, their bite causes a disease called nagana in European breeds of cattle and horses that eventually kills them. It also causes sleeping sickness in humans. Many areas were once uninhabitable as a result, particularly during the summer months. This restricted the ability of pioneers and hunters to penetrate the interior with their ox-wagons, saving many wildlife populations from extinction. In the area around the Kruger National Park for example, most pioneers withdrew up the escarpment in summer, only descending to the Lowveld in winter.

Reasons for the disease were not well understood at first. During the 1920’s, it was believed that the disease was carried by indigenous wildlife. As a result, most wildlife in Zululand was shot during the nagana campaign.  White rhino were brought to the brink of extinction during this period and it was only timeous intervention by Kwa-Zulu Natal Conservation Services that rescued the species from extinction. The widespread use of DDT has since been used to eradicate the flies from most areas, including game reserves. But there are areas in Botswana and Zimbabwe where the flies are still encountered.

Their behaviour is curious. Yellowish-brown in colour, they are marginally larger than the common house fly, and the wings are slightly longer. Active during daylight, they quietly react to movement, land on exposed flesh and, after a few moments, deliver a painful bite. Swatting them doesn’t help – one has to rub them off or they fly away unharmed.

I first encountered tsetse fly in the Zambezi Valley in Zimbabwe, where an innovative plan to control them has been implemented. A wooden frame is erected onto which a dark cloth impregnated with insecticide is stretched. The cloth forms a funnel into which dying flies are directed, landing in a container suspended from the base of the funnel.

In Botswana, control points were installed on major highways. A shed with doors at either end is erected over the road. Small trapdoors on either side of the shed covered with mosquito netting are the only sources of light in the building. The way it works is as follows: First you drive your car into the building. Then a man with a hand-pump walks around spraying insecticide into and underneath the car, reciting, as he does so, a ritual chant: “One, two, whoosh, whoosh” He then hurriedly exits the building, closing the door behind him. The flies, attempting to escape, head for the nearest trapdoor. All involved gather outside the trapdoors to see how many flies have been killed. The operator collects dead flies from both trapdoors, counts them and writes it up in his record book. I assume they continue with the programme until no more flies are caught in the traps.

On a trip to Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango Swamps the flies were particularly troublesome. One of the rules in Moremi is that visitors must be accompanied by a game guard who insists on sitting inside the vehicle. This caused a problem because we only had space for the occupants. After much debate, I agreed to sit in the spare wheel on the bonnet (hood) of the Landrover. In spite of loud protests to the contrary, I welcomed the opportunity to escape the hot confines of the vehicle.

I stuffed the rim with pillows and off we went. However, after a short distance, I realized we had a problem. Looking backwards, I noticed a swarm of tsetse fly following the vehicle. Every time we stopped they swarmed over us, biting furiously. The moving Landrover was a magnet for every fly in sight.

Preventing them from catching us was not difficult – we soon learned that tsetse fly can fly at about 15 km/h – because they could not keep up at that speed, disappearing into the distance and being replaced continuously by new ones. However, while innovative, this solution had its disadvantages because it made stopping impossible. So we drove slowly around, moving continuously to prevent the swarm from catching up with us.

What to do on reaching our campsite? We solved this by stopping suddenly, leaping from the vehicle onto stretchers and covering ourselves with blankets. Even so, some flies managed to bite me through the canvas of the stretcher as well as a heavy canvas shirt. We lay like that for a few minutes until the flies had settled down and then slowly emerged, avoiding any sudden movement which might disturb them. We continued moving about in slow motion, like mimes, until the sun went down and the flies disappeared. Try enjoying a beer in slow motion sometime – it is hilarious.

Incidentally, this experience taught me a radical but novel way to protect wildlife. Simply breed tsetse fly and release them into the areas in question. Human encroachment of such areas would soon cease. However I doubt whether anyone would seriously consider such an approach to wildlife conservation. In spite of the flies, Moremi is magnificent. Visit in winter when the flies are less active.

Moremi Game Reserve borders on the Okavango Swamps west of the road from Kasane to Maun via Chobe National Park. Alan McIver NFEncounters

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Last update: 2014-03-28 07:59
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.4

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