Mao Zedong (1893-1976) disliked pests. Rats, bed bugs, and flies (not to mention as many as 30 million people who got in his way) were, at various times, the focus of Chairman Mao’s disgust and wrath. Among those whom Mao labeled as pests were sparrows. The result of this war on birds was one of the biggest ecological disasters in human history.
As part of his “Great Leap Forward” program, Mao introduced the “Four Pests” campaign in 1958. His intent was to promote hygiene, reduce disease, and encourage greater crop production through the eradication of rats, mosquitoes, flies, and sparrows. The first three of the pests are not particularly surprising. Rats have always gone hand-in-hand with pestilence and famine. Mosquitoes spread disease more effectively than just about any other creature. Wherever you find flies, you will find uncleanness.
His obsession with sparrows may surprise you. The particular sparrow that earned his wrath was the Eurasian tree sparrow. Granted, it was responsible for consuming a substantial portion of China’s crops, but so did many other birds. The sparrow, however, was declared to be “public animals of capitalism.” Citizens were encouraged to take the battle to the birds, and they responded with gusto.
The people of China went after the sparrows with a multi-faceted battle plan. Some set traps for the birds. Others went on a hunt for their nests, destroying the habitat, eggs, and chicks. Professional hunters went out with guns, shooting the birds by the droves. Others chased after the birds with pots and pans, driving them to exhaustion until the sparrows fell dead to the ground.
The battle against the birds was so intense that some sparrows sought political asylum. When some sparrows took up shelter in Poland’s embassy in Beijing, China requested permission to enter the embassy grounds to scare away the birds. The request was denied. Consequently, a large gathering of Chinese citizens surrounded the embassy with drums and made enough noise that after two days the sparrows decided to throw caution to the wind and leave their sanctuary. Those that remained were so stressed and exhausted by the ordeal that embassy personnel had to clear away the bodies of the dead sparrows with shovels.
The Four Pests campaign was wildly successful in its initial objectives. An estimated 1.5 billion rats, 100 million kilograms of flies, and 11 million kilograms of mosquitoes were wiped out. As for the sparrows, the casualties were similarly impressive. As many as 1 billion sparrows met their demise, driving the species to near-extinction within China.
Unfortunately, the war against sparrows had other consequences. As pesky as the sparrow can be, it also serves an important role in reducing other pests. With the sparrow population all but eliminated, many of the birds’ prey enjoyed an unchallenged population explosion. It wasn’t long before the Chinese fields were decimated, not by sparrows, but by locusts and other devouring insects.
Within 2 years of beginning the war against sparrows, Mao ordered a ceasefire. In April 1960, the fourth pest of the Four Pests campaign became the bed bug, officially giving the sparrow a reprieve. By this point, however, it was too late. The damage had been done. The resultant crop loss from the unchallenged insect invasion decimated the rice harvest, triggering a mass famine throughout the country. Some estimates place the human cost of the war on sparrows at 20-45 million people who starved between 1958 and 1962.
Eventually, the Chinese government even went to the lengths of importing 250,000 sparrows from the Soviet Union to help restart the population within its borders. Too late, the Chinese government learned a painful lesson: when you mess with Mother Nature, she has a tendency to get even.
Read more examples of stupidity.
Read about more animals that shaped history.