These panel of images from the late 1950s China, depicting young boys hunting sparrows for sport, were taken from a poster aimed at school children. The poster was part of a large campaign to eradicate pests responsible for the transmission of pestilence and disease. Four pests were chosen for eradication—mosquitoes, rats, flies and sparrows. The last on this ‘kill list’ was deemed responsible for creating shortages in grains and fruits which the bird ate. The ill-conceived idea to tamper with the food chain caused a severe ecological imbalance, and along with other misguided policies the government put in place, it triggered a chain of destructive events that left some 50 million people dead in three years.
The Great Sparrow Campaign was part of an even bigger program called the “Great Leap Forward” initiated by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1958 to transform the largely agrarian nation to a thriving socialist society through rapid industrialization and collectivization. In order to take control of agriculture and establish a monopoly over grain distribution and supply, Mao abolished ownership of private land and introduced communal farming. Many peasants, stripped off their lands, were ordered to work on massive infrastructure projects and on the production of iron and steel.
At the same time, Mao launched a patriotic health campaign targeting vermin that spread diseases. Along with mosquitoes, rats and flies, Mao picked up for elimination the Eurasian tree sparrow that fed on grains. Mao’s advisers calculated that a single sparrow ate four pounds of grain each year, and for every million sparrows killed, there would be food for 60,000 people.
The Eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus). Photo credit: hedera.baltica/Flickr
Few people realized the consequence of disturbing the natural balance of the ecosystem, and even if they did, Mao wouldn’t have listened to them anyway.
“Mao knew nothing about animals. He didn’t want to discuss his plan or listen to experts. He just decided that the ‘four pests’ should be killed,” one of China’s most prominent environmental activists, Dai Qing, told the BBC.
An incredible slaughter of sparrows followed. Every possible method that existed for killing birds were employed. They were shot from the sky, nests were destroyed, eggs broken and chicks killed. Sparrows were caught in nets or trapped with baits. Those that flew away to the countryside were poisoned with tainted food and water. The most cruel of them was driving them to exhaustion. People were told to come out in the open banging pots and pans and create a ruckus to terrorize the birds. The sparrows took to the air and flew around in circles, too terrified to land, until they dropped dead from exhaustion.
Some sparrows found refuge in the premises of various diplomatic missions in China. In the Polish embassy in Beijing, guards denied Chinese people from entering the premises to scare away the sparrows who were hiding there. The crowd then surrounded the embassy and drummed constantly for two days. In the end, the Poles had to use shovels to clear the embassy of dead sparrows.
Millions of people took part in the activities with merciless efficiency. An account published in the Shanghai newspaper reported that 194,432 sparrows were killed on a single day.
To encourage people to participate contests were held among government workers and school children, and non-material rewards were give to those who handed in the largest number of tails of rats, or dead flies and mosquitoes, or dead sparrows. The movement became something of a sport, for the children at least, who participated with great enthusiasm.
Over the next three years, approximately one billion sparrows, 1.5 billion rats, 100 million kilograms of flies and 11 million kilograms of mosquitos were killed. Although the eradication program was inordinately successful, it came at a great cost.
A direct consequence of the Four Pests Campaign was the Great Famine. It became painfully obvious to the Chinese that the sparrows ate more than grains. They also ate insects. With their primary predator gone, insects wrecked havoc on crops and consequentially, rice yields decreased. Locust populations also ballooned, swarming the country and compounding the ecological problems already caused by the Great Leap Forward, including widespread deforestation and misuse of poisons and pesticides. By the time Mao terminated the program—but not before replacing sparrows with bed bugs in the Four Pests list—between 20 to 50 million people had died of starvation.
The gruesome episode serves as a lesson for mankind as to what can happen when unadvised changes are made to an ecosystem. Unfortunately, no lesson was learned. In 1998, a similar program was launched in Chongqing. A poster spotted at Southwest Agricultural University directed people to “Get rid of the Four Pests”, only this time, sparrows were replaced with cockroaches. Again in 2004, China began to cull civet cats in an effort to contain the spread of the SARS virus, even though no evidence has been found linking the cat to the virus. According to the BBC article, officials also planned to launch a “patriotic health campaign” targeting rats and cockroaches, which is eerily similar to Mao’s Great Sparrow Campaign.
The delusion that man could conquer nature was one of the most defiant philosophy of Mao—one that has left a poisoned legacy in China. Mao had famously said in 1958—”make the high mountain bow its head, make the river yield the way.” China continues to disrespect nature exploiting its natural resources and doing little to stop its degradation, the consequence of which is now seen in the country’s many environmental issues ranging from pollution, deforestation, climate change and natural disaster.