51. Relative Might (01/2012)

by brettthevet

Africa at its apparent darkest holds fear and excitement in the minds of many visitors (and residents) who entertain ominous dread of powerful and indeed potentially dangerous animals. But often it’s only during a visit that people discover the big five or ten odd remaining trophies kept safe and vulnerable while it is the seemingly insignificant insects, arachnids, bacteria, and viruses that wield the greatest power over human and other animal life.

Susceptibility holds the key to understanding the apparent weakness that allow victims to succumb to detrimental forces in nature. Optimal health is a complex balance between physical vigour, mental alertness, and emotional stability. These aspects of living creatures are affected by nutrition, the environment, and state of mind, which therefore directly affect the individual’s ability to avoid, resist, or overcome negative influences.

The idea of large predators tends to stimulate deeply instinctive fantasies about dominance and submission in the human psyche. Although these days The King of beasts is raised as a mere pale pussy cat waiting his turn to be propped up on a conveniently located pedestal in the veld, not to be respected or admired, but for assassination at point blank range, for pleasure. He is stripped of his attire, and crucified inert, only to be mocked and belittled as part of a puerile exhibitionist exercise in jock satisfaction.

The general public clearly prefers luscious lamb to the notion of preserving Panthera pardus. A succulent chop on a plate is apparently much more desirable than allowing lurking leopards the luxury of peaceful existence. This is evident in the vast ovine flocks that continue to destroy our landscape, the demise of the awesome cats and the population explosion of lessor predators such as jackals and lynx.

Now the real menace is the seemingly mundane odd little spider with its lethal bite, or bats in the roofs that harbour the rabies virus, or wild birds ‘spreading’ avian flu. Scorpions have an affinity for cotton sheets and smelly shoes, sneaking into their depths unnoticed until somewhat alarmingly unexpected contact. Certain mosquitoes can transmit one of the greatest global killer diseases known to man. Smaller still are gnats that can pass on myriad deadly diseases to animals such as Rift Valley Fever, which can also strike humans.

Particularly odious to nouveau rural sensibilities are ticks of which there are twenty six species in South Africa. If there is anything good to say about ticks it is that they are a source of food for some of our beautiful wild birds. Some species are capable of transmitting serious protozoal and rickettsial diseases to cows, sheep, horses, birds, cats, dogs, and man. Of current local interest is one rare species of tick exhibiting beautiful markings, large mouthparts and stripy legs that secretes a cytotoxic poison into the flesh where it bites. The toxic saliva causes necrosis of large areas of skin in dogs, paralysis in sheep, and transmits the virus that causes Congo Fever in humans (although this has never been confirmed locally!). Hyalomma spp (bontpoot or stripy legged tick) is found in the Prince Albert area and the number of animals bitten appears to be on the increase. Tick bites are best prevented by using an effective topical antiparasitic application. If these ticks are seen on an animal they are best removed by sharp decapitation or smothering with Vaseline rather than pulling as this raises the likelihood of transferring more poison into the bite wound thereby exacerbating the destructive effects. Appropriate professional treatment may need to be administered to alleviate the symptoms.

With greater scientific knowledge and understanding of the natural world we can take appropriate practical steps to limit the effects of undesirable animate attention, but sometimes that still doesn’t satisfy an inexplicable craving for living on the edge.