Environmental disasters are common in the history of mankind, but only a few can compare to the one kicked off in 1958 in China.
The Chinese nation was then going through its Great Leap Forward – an effort to transform it from a largely agrarian country into a thriving industrial Marxist powerhouse.
Sweeping and brutal reforms touched virtually every facet of Chinese life, and as one particular episode in China’s history points out, the animal kingdom was also not spared.
Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, decided that his country could do without pests like sparrows. He was told that the birds consumed 4.5 kg of grain each year and that for every million sparrows ki||ed, there would be food for 60,000 people.
Armed with this information, Mao ordered the people to go forth and get rid all the sparrows – an ill-fated campaign that eventually led to catastrophe.
Dubbed as the Great Sparrow Campaign, hundreds of millions of sparrows dîêd, mostly because Chinese citizens mobilized in massive numbers chased them until the birds were so tired that they fell out of the sky.
They even took the campaign to the streets, clanging their pots and pans or beating drums to terrorize the birds and prevent them from landing. Nests were torn down, eggs were broken, chicks ki||ed, and sparrows shot.
As a result of these efforts, hundreds of millions of sparrows were ki||ed that they became nearly extinct in China. And that’s when the problems started and became evident in 1960.
The sparrows, it seemed, didn’t only eat grain seeds. They also ate insects. With no birds to control them, insect populations boomed. Locusts, in particular, swarmed over the country, eating everything they could find including crops intended for human food.
Agricultural yields that year were disastrously low. Rice production, in particular, was hit the hardest. Things got so bad that the Chinese government started importing sparrows from the Soviet Union.
The overflow of insects, plus the added effects of widespread deforestation and misuse of poisons and pesticides, were a significant contributor to the Great Chinese Famine (1958-1961) in which an estimated 45 million people dïëd of starvation.
But the people did not go down quickly or easily. “Documents report several thousand cases where people ate other people,” said Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng. “Parents ate their own kids. Kids ate their own parents.” The behavior was so awful with thousands of people múrderéd for food or for speaking out against the government.