India has been so unsuccessful in producing its own weapons of war that I am surprised that we do not start looking for innovative ways to keep our neighbours at bay. We have Pakistan and China’s incursions on one side, Bangladeshis pouring in relentlessly into our border districts, Maoists coming through Nepal, insurgents in our northeast going in and out of Myanmar. It is perhaps time to look at uniquely Indian Ayurvedic solutions, rather than foreign allopathic ones, to defend our borders.
In 2002, the Defence Ministry funded a study of ancient texts to identify which natural substances could be used as chemical weapons. I would love to see the study and know whether it is ongoing.
In the 5th century, a Greek physician named Ctesias described a poison from India that was so potent that a tiny drop could kill a man. For 700 years the Romans and Greeks tried to find this poison, said to be used by the kings of India for suicide or assassination. The idea was for Roman archers to use it. It was thought that the poison came from the droppings of a tiny Himalayan bird called Dikairon, the size of a large grape. The search went on for centuries. No one ever found the bird, but in the 20th century scientists discovered the Paederus beetle which matched the description of the Dikairon. This beetle harbours bacteria called Pederin which is more powerful than the venom of the black widow spider and the cobra. These black and orange beetles are found in North India and some of them can fly. Heavy rains trigger off mass breeding.
The Chinese have known about the Paederus beetles for centuries. They used its secretions to kill ringworm and to remove tattoos! Even though Paederus beetles do not bite or sting, pederin, a toxin mainly found in the females, is released when the beetle is crushed, even partially, against the skin. Within 12–36 hours a reddish rash appears which develops into blisters. Irritation, crusting and scaling may last from two to three weeks and spread to other parts of the body. In the villages of India, they steer clear of the insect because coming into contact with its secretions, while killing it, causes pus filled sores that take months to heal and are extremely painful. In fact, less than a hundred thousandth of a gram can put a person out of commission for a long time, tending to his skin. Eating the beetle leads to severe and lethal internal injuries. If injected into the bloodstream Pederin is fatal.
Paederus species are brightly coloured with metallic blue- or green-coloured or bright orange/red elytra. A paper in the magazine Lancet in 2002 suggested that a Paederus species could have been responsible for one of the ten Plagues of Egypt described in the Bible’s Book of Exodus – the plague of boils. Various outbreaks of dermatitis attributed to the Paederus beetle have been reported in Turkey, Africa, Japan and of course India.
Is the beetle the only insect that can be used as a weapon? There is the Bullet Ant Paraponera clavata found in Central America. Each ant is about 0.7 to 1.2 inches long and resembles a stout, reddish-black, wingless wasp. The pain caused by this insect's sting is the most painful in the world according to the Schimdt Sting Pain Index. According to victims, the pain which continues for 24 hours is equal to being shot, hence the name of the insect. The sting contains a paralysing neurotoxin called poneratoxin. A tribe in Brazil uses the ants as a manhood rite where the boy slips an ant filled glove onto his hand for 10 minutes. When finished, the boy's hand and part of his arm are temporarily paralysed and he may shake uncontrollably for days.
The Japanese Giant Hornet (Vespa mandarinia japonica) could be another candidate for war games. The size of your thumb, it can spray flesh-melting poison. The poison also has a pheromone that calls every hornet in the hive to come and sting you. How powerful are they? Thirty Vespa japonica hornets can tear open the beehives of 30,000 bees and kill them all.
Africanised Honey Bees (Apis mellifera scutellata) are an invention of a mad scientist who crossed European bees with African ones. Found in South and North America, this species swarms by the hundreds of millions, is insanely territorial, mindlessly aggressive, and has killed a few thousand people. It can live in the jungle or the desert.
The Army or Soldier Ant (Eciton burchellii) lives in the Amazon Basin but has subfamilies living in Asia and Africa. Each ant is half-inch in length with massive, powerful, machete-like jaws, half the length of the soldier ants themselves. They're called 'Army' ants because their entire colony, up to one million insects, is a mobile battalion. They don't make permanent nests like other ants. They stay temporarily down in single locations just long enough for the queen to lay her eggs while the soldiers spread out in search of food, killing and dismembering every living thing on the way. There are reports of animals the size of horses being shredded by them. For the good of the colony, the ants will use their own bodies to build any structure necessary, latching on to each other to create protective walls and ceilings against the ravages of the weather, bridges and boats.
The Bot Fly (Oestridae) has dozens of varieties. Each one has a specific target and is named after it, e.g. Horse Stomach Bot Fly, Sheep Nose Bot Fly. One of them is called Human Bot Fly.
Horse Stomach Bots, for example, lay their eggs in grass. Horses eat the grass and the eggs. These hatch in the mouth, chew through the tongue and burrow into the belly. When they're ready to be flies, they enter the intestine and are thrown out with the faeces. The Human Bot Fly lays its eggs on a horsefly or a mosquito. This lands on a human. The eggs rub off on the human, whose body heat hatches the eggs. The larvae drop onto the skin and burrow right in and start eating the flesh.
There are Kissing Bugs that spread Chagas, Fleas for Bubonic plague, Fire and Driver Ants to eat you up. And if all else fails, there is the one insect that has caused more deaths than all the wars in the world – the mosquito.
An invading force that had these insects to deal with would make a very fast retreat. For years the Russians, Japanese, Germans, French, Americans and British have been experimenting on how to use insects as defensive or offensive weapons. Should we not think about it?
(To join the animal welfare movement contact firstname.lastname@example.org,www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)