Insects - A Deadly Peril
by Basha O'Reilly FRGS
Before setting off on an equestrian journey, most travellers realise they will be required to endure many hardships and survive danger. Common worries include deadly traffic and murderous criminals.
What most horse travellers forget is that the lives of them and their horses are often at risk by a forgotten enemy – the insect.
The list of horse travellers who became victims of deadly insects includes Alexander the Great and Charles Darwin.
The odds are stacked against human beings when it comes to bugs.
Because there are only a limited number of large, dangerous, meat-eating predators, you can take comfort in the fact that chances are slim that you will encounter a hungry polar bear, a lurking lion or a ravenous wolf during your journey. There are, for example, “only” an estimated 70,000 wolves hunting in North America.
Contrast the number of wolves against the estimated quintillion insects – that’s 10,000,000,000,000,000,000, residing on the planet today.
Don’t overlook the fact that there are 900,000 different types of insects and that 91,000 types reside in the United States alone.
Thanks to these numbers, you can quickly realize the likelihood of you suffering some type of negative insect-related experience while riding through the wilds.
One of the benefits of a climate-controlled urbanized existence is that it allows much of humanity to enjoy a largely bug-free existence. Such a life of ease helps erase collective memories. Forgotten is the fact that much of mankind previously co-habited with insects.
Harry de Windt was a superb example of this laissez-faire philosophy.
In 1890 de Windt set out to ride from the Caspian Sea to India.
In the village of Bideshk he recorded how the local post house was noted for hosting the largest and most venomous bugs between Teheran and Ispahan.
“We only remained there three hours and felt the effect for days afterwards.”
As Harry rode across Persia, he wrote later, “A pigsty would have been welcome after such a ride, and the vermin which a flickering oil lamp revealed in hundreds, on walls and flooring, did not prevent me sleeping soundly till morning.”
An insect swarm contains countless individuals, yet it navigates and operates as a single entity. Though it lacks any centralized control structure dictating individual behaviour, the accumulated effect can be deadly.
In 1910 a young British Long Rider named Douglas Carruthers set out to explore Dzungaria, an ancient Mongolian kingdom which lay between Siberia and Mongolia. 5,000 miles of trackless forest, insect-infested taiga, freezing steppes and dreary deserts. It was all tough but the insects made it hell.
“The advanced season of the year had produced a torment of mosquitoes and horse-flies, and, as we floundered through these marshes, we traversed the worst locality at the worst season of the year from the point of view of flies.
The disturbing of the undergrowth caused the air to be filled with a real horror of many insects, which drove the horses mad. Giant green horse-flies and small black flies tormented the animals during the whole trek. The line of the caravan could easily be distinguished by the cloud of insects which hung in the air above it, and it was with difficulty that we succeeded in keeping our eyes open.”
Man has been fighting insects for eons. Yet the list of defensive weapons invented for this type of combat is woefully embarrassing. Cave-dwelling humans knew smoke drove away flying pests.
Horse travellers have relied on creative means to combat their insect attackers. One such inventive equestrian traveller was Évariste Régis Huc.
The French missionary set off in 1844, determined to ride from Peking to Lhasa. Huc left a record of how he battled blood-sucking bugs along the way.
“We had been travelling for six weeks, and still wore the same clothing we had assumed on our departure. The incessant pricklings indicated that our attire was peopled with filthy lice.
We used a Chinese recipe that may be useful to others.
half an ounce of mercury, which you mix with old tea leaves previously
reduced to paste by chewing. When stirred into the tea leaves
Soak a piece of cotton string in this lethal mixture and hang it round your neck. The lice will bite the bait and die.”
There are a number of lethal insects which should concern you. Heading the list is the mosquito.
Scientists estimate there are 3,500 types of mosquito species.
Things don’t look good when it comes to battling mosquitoes. Record hot temperatures have encouraged mosquitoes to proliferate even in traditionally cool countries. At the same time, the winged pests are becoming increasingly immune to the insecticides normally used to kill them. Reports from Africa indicate that resistance to insecticides has grown from 8 percent to 48 percent.
Because they feed on blood, repelling mosquitoes is often a matter of life and death. A mosquito bite can result in exposure to a number of diseases including yellow fever, dengue fever and Chikungunya. But the number one killer is still malaria.
Despite constant efforts to control malaria, it is still responsible for more deaths than every other insect-borne infection combined. Scientists believe 247 million people are infected per year, resulting in millions of deaths.
WNV is a permanent health threat to horses and humans in most of the world.
In 1999 scientists confirmed that the virus is transmitted when a mosquito feeds upon an infected bird, then passes on the disease by biting a human or horse.
The link between sick birds and mosquito carriers is also believed to hold a vital clue to the death of one of history’s most celebrated travellers.
After conquering most of the known world, Alexander the Great died in Babylon in the summer of 323 BC. His mysterious death followed a lingering two-week illness.
The historian Plutarch recorded the strange behaviour and subsequent deaths of numerous ravens outside the walls of Babylon. According to ancient testimony large numbers of ravens fell dead in front of the Macedonian conqueror.
The importance of this bird-related event remained undetected until 2007, when two American epidemiologists proposed that Alexander had been infected by West Nile Virus, which originated from the dead ravens. The death of the birds, they argued, was reminiscent of the avian illness, and subsequent deaths several weeks later, which led to the discovery of the West Nile Virus in the United States.
Because death results in at least a third of all equine cases, you should determine if the disease has been found in the area where you will be riding. If so, then vaccinate your animals prior to departure.
There are thousands of species of midges in the world. The biting midge, is a flying terror. These tiny two-winged insects are less than 1/8" (.317 centimetres) long.
These tiny hunters are especially active around dusk and dawn. Their diminutive size allows them to pass through wire screen that normally keeps larger insects at bay.
To make matters worse, when the little monsters aren’t eating you, they’re busy feasting on your poor horse.
Creating a defence is vitally important as the biting midge is known to transmit the dreaded and deadly African Horse Sickness.
African Horse Sickness
If your horse is infected with African Horse Sickness (AHS), then you need to be prepared for the worst.
The ailment is so deadly that nearly 90 percent of all horses die after becoming infected. This disease killed a horse belonging to modern Austrian Long Riders.
After setting off in 2003 to ride from South Africa to Kenya, Horst Hausleitner and Esther Stein suffered through severe weather, survived a mob attack, and endured primitive conditions. Things weren’t much better for their horses either. One horse suffered from biliary fever and another nearly died from snakebite.
That’s when the third horse became ill.
“We were two days away from finishing our journey when our horse Misty became ill at noon. She was dead by sunset, a victim of the most virulent strain of African Horse Sickness.
The next time you complain about an annoying house fly buzzing about the room, give a thought to how much worse things might be.
Unlike the mosquito, the tsetse fly won’t politely buzz in your ear. This belligerent insect will deliberately hunt you down and then drill straight through your clothes in search of blood. Nor does his bite provoke a mild itch. It stings, badly.
And he’s responsible for killing millions of head of livestock and hundreds of thousands of people every year.
During feeding, the fly transmits the single cell parasite, trypanosome. When this protozoa is introduced into humans it produces the deadly disease known as sleeping sickness.
The threat of tsetse flies to humanity is so prolific that it has spread across 37 sub-Saharan African countries.
Any Long Rider unlucky enough to be bitten by a tsetse fly, and who develops a high fever or other manifestations of African sleeping sickness, should seek medical help without delay. If diagnosed early, treatment can halt the progress of the disease, otherwise it is invariably fatal.
The same germ creates a disease known as Nagana in horses.
Symptoms of Nagana include a foul smell, fever, followed by loss of muscle, discharge from the eyes and nose, culminating with bodily paralysis. Should your horse become infected with Nagana, you are required to immediately contact the local government health authorities.
You probably haven’t considered how you will react if an insect kills your horse.
Slovakian Long Rider Janja Kovačič faced that hardship in South America.
“We arrived in Beni, which is a disaster for horses. They walk around in wet conditions always. Besides that, there are ticks, vampire bats, mosquitoes and God knows what else.”
It didn’t take long for Janja to discover that an estimated 80 percent of all local horses were infected with Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA). To make matters worse, her horses were no exceptions.
“It turned out that my favourite horse Geronimo had EIA and soon died of the illness” Janja wrote.
The deadly disease was first identified in France in 1842. It represents a widespread danger to horses, with documented cases having occurred in South Africa, the Orient, Russia, Middle East, Europe and throughout the Americas.
EIA is most often transmitted by horse flies. The virus is transferred into the host when the fly is sucking blood from its prey.
EIA is detected by identifying antibodies in the horse’s blood. Known as the Coggins Test, a negative result confirms there are no traces of the virus at the time of the test. A positive result means the horse is infected with the EIA virus. If that is the case, the results are catastrophic for the horse and owner.
National governments demand a negative Coggins test before they will allow a horse to cross their border.
German Long Rider Günter Wamser recently completed a 20,000 kilometre journey from Patagonia to Alaska. When he rode through Panama, an infamous insect known as the coloradillas nearly drove him insane.
Coloradillas are practically microscopic insects no bigger than the period seen at the end of this sentence. They infest pastures and tall grass throughout Central America.
Gunter had planned to rest in the remote town Utive. But immediately his horses suffered from a vicious attack that left them scratching at the inflamed bites that appeared on their legs and under their tails. They also lost the hair on their faces and necks.
Nor was Günter exempt from this torture.
“I am covered with these bites too. These small bloodsucking creatures lie in wait in the grass. They are almost invisible to the naked eye. There were times when I could have torn my skin off,” Gunter explained in an email to the Guild.
With the exception of mosquitoes, ticks pose the greatest danger to humans and horses, as they transmit a number of fatal diseases.
Unlike regional terrors such as the African tsetse fly or the Central American coloradillas, ticks are not geographically restricted. Nor do they merely cause discomfort or inflict only one disease. They are prolific killers deserving of special attention.
There are hundreds of different species of ticks, infesting countries around the world. Their immense range includes all of Europe, Russia, Central Asia, the Americas and Africa.
British Long Rider Christina Dodwell was infected with African Tick Bite Fever while riding across Rhodesia in the 1970s.
“I remember nothing of the journey over the next hundred miles,” she later wrote.
In the summer of 2012 Orion Kraus began his journey from Mexico to Panama. What did he finding waiting for him?
“Ticks are the worst. My first night on the trail, I must have picked at least 20 ticks off me and I’ve been battling them ever since.”
Thanks to the casual access to knowledge now available to most internet users, it’s easy to forget that some diseases were only recently discovered. One such deadly example is Lyme Disease. Recent genetic research suggests this infection has been slaying humans for more than 5,000 years, yet the sickness was only diagnosed in 1978.
Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease in the Northern Hemisphere. The infection is often transmitted between the months of May to September, when the ticks are most active.
Even if caught early, the effects of Lyme Disease can linger for years, are extremely unpleasant, and have destroyed countless lives.
Mefo Phillips was bitten by a tick in June of 2010 while riding across the Massif Central in France on part of the Pilgrim Way to Santiago de Compestela. She later developed the symptoms of Lyme disease and became seriously ill.
At the first hint of Lyme Disease, a Long Rider should seek immediate medical treatment.
Like many other insect-connected illnesses, another deadly infection has expanded its original range. Though originally restricted to Latin America, Chagas disease has migrated into North America and beyond.
This malevolent illness is transmitted via a bite of the blood-sucking insect known as the “assassin bug”.
Not only is the illness of growing concern, scientists recently uncovered evidence indicating it may have been connected to the death of one of the most famous Long Riders in history.
The most famous victim of Chigas disease may have been Historical Long Rider Charles Darwin.
Though he is known today as “the father of evolution,” famous English biologist Charles Darwin was also an avid equestrian traveller. During the five years in which he made his famous scientific journey around the world, he took every opportunity to explore the continents of South America, Australia and Africa on horseback.
On March 26, 1835, while riding to the east of the Argentine Andes, Darwin left a gruesome account of meeting the assassin bug.
“At night I experienced an attack, and it deserves no less a name, of the Benchuca, the great black bug of the pampas. It is most disgusting to feel soft wingless insects, about an inch long, crawling over ones body; before sucking they are quite thin, but afterwards round and bloated with blood and in this state they are easily squashed.”
In 2010 researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine connected the symptoms of Chigas disease with Darwin’s accounts of how he became ill during his equestrian journey across the pampas of Argentina.
There are a number of precautions which can reduce the chances of you becoming a walking smorgasbord.
Study your route with care. Identify the insect threats that live there.
Once you’ve identified the type of pest which you will encounter, obtain the proper vaccinations to lower your chances of infection.
There are ways to reduce insect attacks on your horses.
First, never trim your horse’s tail, mane or forelock. Nature provided this long hair as a protection against insects. The longer the horse’s hair, the better his chances of defending himself.
Don’t neglect to provide your horse with up-to-date vaccinations for rabies, tetanus, West Nile virus and equine encephalomyelitis prior to departure. To reduce any adverse reaction, be sure the inoculations are administered several weeks before your departure.
Consider investing in an equine repellent which includes a strong percentage of DEET. Do consider the negative reaction a strong repellent might have on your horse’s sensitive skin. Some animals, including my stallion, break out in hives if sprayed with repellent. The time to experiment is before you leave.
The information in this article is a very small extract from the chapter on insects which will appear in the forthcoming Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration by CuChullaine O'Reilly.
Copyright (c) 2014 Basha O'Reilly
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