China’s Worst Self-Inflicted Environmental Disaster: The Campaign to Wipe Out the Common Sparrow

Back in the 1950s, China was going through its Great Leap Forward, an effort to transform China from a largely agrarian nation to a thriving industrial Marxist powerhouse. These sweeping (and often 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 far from immune. In 1958, China ordered the extermination of several pests, including sparrows — an ill-fated campaign that eventually led to catastrophe.

The Four Pests campaign

Chinese leader Mao Zedong initiated the Four Pests campaign after reaching the conclusion that several blights needed to be exterminated — namely mosquitoes, flies, rats, and sparrows. While many people nowadays would regard tampering with the ecosystem in such a radical way as a shockingly irresponsible idea, this was a classic case of something appearing like a good idea at the time. And according to environmental activist Dai Qing, "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."

China’s Worst Self-Inflicted Environmental Disaster: The Campaign to Wipe Out the Common Sparrow

Moreover, the idea fit in quite well with Mao's hard-line totalitarian Communist ideology. Marx himself was far from an environmentalist, proclaiming that nature should be fully exploited by humans for production purposes (a legacy which may explain China's poor environmental track record to this very day).

Now, while the Chinese citizens were called upon to wage war against all four of these pests, the government was particularly annoyed by the sparrow, or more specifically, the Eurasian Tree Sparrow. The Chinese were having a rough go of it as it was, adapting to collectivization and the re-invention of farming, so they felt particularly victimized by this bird which had a particular fondness for eating grain seeds. Chinese scientists had calculated that each sparrow consumed 4.5kg of grain each year — and that for every million sparrows killed, there would be food for 60,000 people. Armed with this information, Mao launched the Great Sparrow Campaign to address the problem.

"Total war"

To accomplish this task, Chinese citizens were mobilized in massive numbers to eradicate the birds by forcing them to fly until they fell from exhaustion. The Chinese people took 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 killed, and sparrows shot down from the sky. Experts estimate that hundreds of millions of sparrows were killed as part of the campaign.

An account from the Shanghai newspaper captures the excitement:

China’s Worst Self-Inflicted Environmental Disaster: The Campaign to Wipe Out the Common Sparrow

On the early morning of December 13, the citywide battle to destroy the sparrows began. In large and small streets, red flags were waving. On the buildings and in the courtyards, open spaces, roads and rural farm fields, there were numerous scarecrows, sentries, elementary and middle school students, government office employees, factory workers, farmers and People's Liberation Army shouting their war cries. In the Xincheng district, they produced more than 80,000 scarecrows and more than 100,000 colorful flags overnight. The residents of Xietu road, Xuhui distrct and Yangpu road Yulin district also produced a large number of motion scarecrows. In the city and the outskirts, almost half of the labor force was mobilized into the anti-sparrow army. Usually, the young people were responsible for trapping, poisoning and attacking the sparrows while the old people and the children kept sentry watch. The factories in the city committed themselves into the war effort even as they guaranteed that they would maintain production levels. In the parks, cemeteries and hot houses where there are fewer people around, 150 free-fire zones were set up for shooting the sparrows. The Nanyang Girls Middle School rifle team received training in the techniques for shooting birds. Thus the citizens fought a total war against the sparrows. By 8pm tonight, it is estimated that a total of 194,432 sparrows have been killed.

As a result of these efforts, the sparrow became nearly extinct in China.

And that's when the problems started.

Famine

By April of 1960, it started to become painfully obvious to the Chinese leaders that the sparrows, in addition to eating grains, ate insects.

Lots of insects.

And without the sparrows to curb the insect population, the crops were getting decimated in a way far worse than if birds had been allowed to hang around. Consequently, agricultural yields that year were disastrously low. Rice production in particular was hit the hardest. On the advice of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Mao declared full-stop to the Great Sparrow Campaign, replacing the birds with bed bugs on the Four Pests naughty list.

But the damage was done — and the situation got progressively worse. Locust populations swarmed the countryside with no sparrows in sight. 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 30 million people died of starvation.

The episode serves as a stark lesson for what can happen when sweeping changes are made to an ecosystem. Yet, in a startlingly similar campaign initiated back in 2004, China culled 10,000 civet cats in an effort to eradicate SARS. And according to Tim Luard of the BBC, they have also launched a "patriotic extermination campaign" that targets badgers, raccoon dogs, rats, and cockroaches. The over-arching lesson, it would seem, may not have be learned.

Sources: BBC, NYT, Independent (1) (2), "Great Sparrow Campaign" video, China: A New History, ThinkQuest.

Top and inset image is in the public domain via Chinese government. Image of sparrow via Latiche/Wikipedia.