The Worst Bug in the World

tsetse fly
The tsetse fly, a.k.a. glossina palpalis, a.k.a., Africa’s finest game warden. This one a female, although she does not look very feminine. Or maybe she does. They’re not quite this big in real life, but they feel like it.

by David E. Petzal

I’m willing to bet everyone who reads this post that they can’t recollect a bug bite they got 37 years ago. But I can.

It was on the inside of my right ankle, two inches south of the ankle bone, and an inch toward the heel. I got it in Zambia, in the Luangua River Valley, on the shore of the Luangua River, sitting by an evening campfire, listening to a visiting professional hunter describe, with glee, how he had risked his and his client’s life that afternoon by pissing off a road block guard armed with an AK-47 and a marked dislike of mzungu.

I thought a live coal had jumped from the fire and landed on my ankle. I tore off my boot, and found that it was not a burn, but a bite from the worst insect in the world, the tsetse fly.

Now,  I am no stranger to insects. I’ve been chewed by chiggers (or, if you prefer, ravaged by red bugs), massacred by mosquitos, targeted by ticks, nibbled by no-se-ums, besieged by black flies, and driven to dementia by deer flies. They can all make you miserable (and a few of them can kill you) but nowadays, they can be managed. With DEET and Permethrin you can keep the little bastards off you, and if chemicals don’t work, you can cover up. Head nets are a godsend, and in places like the subarctic where the mosquitos swarm in clouds, a must.

But there’s no stopping the tsetse. It’s a large, dun-colored fly that inhabits sub-Saharan Africa in a belt that extends from 14 degrees north of the equator to 20 degrees south. Tsetses prefer thornbush country and subsist on blood, any blood—yours, mine, wildebeest, it matters not.

They obtain it by jabbing the victim with a hollow proboscis that works like a hypodermic needle. Stab, then suck. The proboscis can penetrate anything. They can drain a meal from a Cape buffalo or a rhino. If it bleeds, it’s lunch. I’ve had tsetse bites directly beneath a heavy, wide, leather belt. There was no way they could have gotten under it, so they must have drilled through it. You can cover up (and sweat to death in the process) or slather on the chemicals. It won’t help.

Tsetses transmit two types of a disease called Trypanosomiasis. In cattle, it’s called nagana, and can sweep through Africans’ wretched herds of scrub stock like a scythe. In humans, it’s sleeping sickness, because its victims become progressively lethargic and eventually die (not unlike U.S. senators). If sleeping sickness is treated early, it can be cured, but more than one professional hunter has decided to wait until the end of safari season, and perished because of the delay. You can live with it for several weeks or several months, but then it’s lights out.

Ironically, it’s nagana that provides the fly’s one saving grace. Because it kills cattle, herdsmen will not drive their animals into fly country, and the game, which is immune to the disease, will not be driven out.

Reaction to fly bites varies. Natives, and professional hunters, don’t seem bothered at all, probably because they’ve had a lifetime to get accustomed. However, some safari-ists, including myself, are in for a very hard time because they’re allergic. On the first days of your first safari in fly country you’ll get bitten, and it’s no worse than a mosquito bite. However, as the days progress, you’ll notice the bites are bigger, and redder, and itch worse and worse. Cortisone works, somewhat; antihistamines work, somewhat. The only thing that really works, however, is getting out of fly country.

Should you be lucky enough to return to Africa, you may find that your reaction to the bites is stronger, and it comes on faster. In Zambia in 1987, I was chewed so badly the PH sent to one of the other camps for a couple of syringes of antihistamine, and I retired to my tent until we got the bites under control.

Once in a while, the fly will jab its snout into a nerve, and then your shrieks will make the dambo ring. It feels like being stabbed with a red-hot needle. A jab to the nerve was the cause of one of my worst frights in Africa.

The PH and I and the trackers were cruising through a fly belt. (Fly belts are strips of country where the insects are so terrible that no one can hang around. I’ve been told that when the early European hunters walked into a fly belt, they would shoot a small antelope, split the carcass in half, and drape one of the halves over their back to distract the flies.) It was African summer, which you do not want to experience, and John was wearing the standard PH uniform of short-sleeved shirt, short shorts, and no underwear. This left his balls lying unattended on the vehicle seat.

Then he shrieked. I don’t mean he yelled. He shrieked. My thoughts, in order, were:

1. A mamba got him.

2. Mambas are fond of multi-bite, multi-person rampages. I might be next.

3. He will be dead in a half hour because we were in Kafue National Park, which is a long way from medical help, or anything else.

It was not life and death. A tsetse had bitten John on one of his exposed nuts.

Be advised that slapping a tsetse—they tend to stab and linger—will have no effect. They will look at you and go on sucking. The technique I recommend is the Southwestern Zimbabwean Slap and Roll. You whack your hand down on the little vampire and then, keeping the pressure on, push your hand forward, rolling the winged monster and squashing him in the process.

I remember the last tsetse I ever saw. It was on a rear window of the single-engine plane in which I flew from the Luangua to Lusaka Airport. Using the technique of sensei Hidetaka Nishiama, I gave the little bastard an elbow strike (Empi Uchi) which squashed him flat and left an excellent bloodstain on the plexiglass. Then we got to the airport and I checked in and scratched furiously for a couple of hours waiting for my flight.

Since then, when planning a new safari, one of my first questions is, “Is it fly country?” If the answer is yes, I hunt somewhere else.

 I’ve had enough.

Dave Petzal once owned a Boxer named King that ate bumblebees. King would slobber them into submission, then gulp them down like chili peppers. He was never stung.