Rinderpest

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Aside from North and South America, few other continents have gotten such a raw deal from contact with their neighbors quite as much as Africa. Throughout most of history, Africa was seen mostly as a source of exotic trade goods and slaves. However, people from Europe and the Middle East throughout most of history mostly stayed on the coast, avoiding the interior with the exception of South Africa. This was largely due to the fact that the interior of Africa was completely chock full of deadly tropical diseases and well armed and organized tribes and kingdoms, who were less than welcoming to those daring to venture inland. However, as the European powers began to jockey for actual control of the African resources they so desperately craved, things quickly got out of hand.

In the 1880’s, Italy just up and decided one day that it would be in its best interest to control the areas of the region known as the Horn of Africa. The only problem with this idea was that the various peoples living there, most notably the Ethiopians, were not really down with the whole idea. Things got rather violent. It was during these various campaigns, around 1889, that the Italian army got the bright idea that they should totally ship in some cattle from India and the Middle East to help feed its troops. Unfortunately, these cattle were infected by a nasty air borne disease known as rinderpest, which though common in the homeland of the cattle, had never been seen before in Africa. You can probably guess what happened next. The disease spread rapidly amongst the cattle, goats, sheep, and oxen of the locals, killing some 90 percent within a few years. This was not exactly a good thing for the locals, who not only depended on their cattle for food, but also their oxen for plowing their fields. While many people reverted to farming by hand, things only got worse when a drought swept the area. By the end of the epidemic, an estimated third of the population of Ethiopia had starved to death. Things just got shittier from there.

To the south of Ethiopia were the famed savannas of Kenya and Tanzania, home to numerous nomadic tribes, the most powerful of whom were the Maasai. Most of these tribes, the Maasai chief amongst them, were entirely dependent upon their large cattle herds for sustenance. With cattle theft a common practice, some unlucky bastards stole some cattle from Ethiopia. It was a major mistake. Within months, millions of cattle were dead and dying, removing the only source of food for the Maasai and the other tribes. Within a few years, an estimated two-thirds of the Maasai starved to death. The sheer number of cattle and people dying horrified the European powers who controlled the coast, but not to the degree that it kept them from moving into the interior to take control of the territory that the Maasai were no longer able to defend. In the meanwhile, the rinderpest outbreak continued making its way south, eventually crossing the Zambeze River and threatening British controlled South Africa. Not really down with 90 percent of their cattle dying, the British carried out various schemes to halt the spread of the virus. The first attempt was to build a thousand mile barbed wire fence. This worked about as well as you would imagine it would. The next strategy was to kill every susceptible animal in a zone several hundred miles wide stretching across the continent. People used to think big back then. This worked to the degree that it slowed the disease, but still millions of cattle in South Africa died before the epidemic burned itself out around the end of the century.

If all of this sounds pretty horrorific, then it might not be a good time to mention that things weren’t over yet. The rinderpest epidemic not only killed 90 percent of the cattle in East Africa, it also killed around 50 percent of the various wild cloven hooved animals; such as wildebeest, giraffes, and various types of antelope. The resulting depopulation of grazing animals resulted in wide areas of the savanna shifting from grasslands to large swaths of scrubby thorn bushes. These areas were the perfect breeding ground for tsetse flies, a blood sucking bastard who also happened to be the primary carrier of sleeping sickness, a terrible disease which drives people insane, makes them extremely lethargic, and then finally kills them. Though tsetse flies had always been in Africa, the greatly boosted population caused a sleeping sickness outbreak across Eastern Africa from 1901 through 1908 which killed hundreds of thousands of people, including up to two thirds of the native population in some regions. This pretty much ended any native attempts to stop the European colonial takeover.

The Europeans who took control of the savannas mostly concentrated on creating large plantations and ranches, as well as giant game preserves. The truth of the matter was that the Europeans were more horrified by the deaths of so many big game animals rather than the fate of all the people that had died. After all, while a bunch of so-called savages perishing was one thing, it was nothing compared to not being able to go big game hunting. So yeah, it was that kind of fucked up. A combination of these game preserves, a ban on any natives killing wild animals, and large swaths of tsetse infested scrubland being avoided, and therefore undeveloped, led to an explosion in wild animal populations to levels likely higher than before the outbreak. This included lions, which led to a sharp increase in the number of lion attacks on villages, which the locals were pretty much just told to shut up and get used to. Some modern ecologists would later say that the rinderpest outbreak was the greatest boon to African wildlife in modern history, which though true, is still probably a shitty thing to say all things considered. Research into both sleeping sickness and rinderpest resulted in the development of effective quarantine and treatment methods by World War II, though outbreaks still periodically occurred. Rinderpest was declared globally eradicated in 2010. Sleeping sickness still kills 3,500 people in Africa each year.