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January 15, 2014

The Great Sarawak Cat Drop

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – Probably one of the most bizarre and unbelievable stories ever to come out of Sarawak was the report that the Royal Air Force parachuted cats into Bario in 1960.


The story begins with the attempt to eradicate malaria in the Kelabitt Highlands, a still inaccessible part of Borneo Island. A report in the Malaysian newspaper Straits Times states that Mr. F. LaChance, a World Health Organization (WHO) entomologist, was leaving Sarawak after successfully eradicating malaria. He had also sprayed houses in the "inaccessible Kelabitt Plateau."


According to an article in the American Journal of Public Health, Mr. LaChance and his team would enter a long house and spray DDT and/or BHC on the walls and under the beds of longhouses. The residue would dry into white powder and remain effective for six months when the application would have to be applied again. It was felt this was enough to eradicate the mosquito carrying the malaria parasite, plasmodium.


However, during a local malaria conference the Kelabitt people reported a deterioration of the thatch on the roof of the longhouse. A team of WHO investigators were sent to investigate and found that a moth caterpillar population which lived in the thatch had exploded. They were literally consuming the roofs.


An investigation followed and it was found the DDT had affected a small chaclid wasp who laid its eggs in the body of the caterpillar controlling the population. Counts showed the caterpillar population had increased by 50%. It was decided to spray the homes and roofs with a very toxic pesticide which killed both the caterpillars and the wasps.


From around the world including Sabah and Sarawak, reports flooded in about the die off of cats that licked their paws after walking across the roofs and rubbing their sides against walls after the more potent spraying. Villagers reported that the cats “would have the shakes, get sick, linger for a few days, and die." Toxically reports from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, the USA confirmed the levels of insecticide in the cats systems were enough to cause the die off.


With the demise of the cats came the rats. A 1959 WHO Field Report indicated the "field rats were a greater menace than usual, partly as a result of anti-malarial spraying which accidentally killed many cats."


In his book Fairland Sarawak, Alastair Morrison reported that the popular and debonair District Officer (colonial administrator) Malcolm MacSporran was sleeping and a rat had chewed through his pillow apparently to remove the stuffing for a nest. The bon vivant screamed out word that the town was being overrun by rats. John Seal, the assistant director of Civil Aviation in Kuching, received the call, and another report stated the Kuching Fire Brigade was enlisted to round up cats to save the Bario rice crop from devastation.


Mr. MacSporran then enlisted an RAF plane to drop the cats over Bario. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and the plane had to proceed to Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu).The kind hearted crew let the cats out for the night in a secure shed. The plane took off the next morning after a battle to put the unwilling cats back into the wicker baskets. The plane was diverted to Brunei because the clouds had not dissipated. The weather improved and the now bloody, scratched and testy crew parachuted the felines into Bario.


It is not known how many cats survived the drop or the condition of the man who opened the wicker baskets to let out the now very angry cats.


Both the Straits Times and the Singapore Free Press of March 17, 1960, reported that 23 cats "expertly packed in wicker baskets" were airlifted and parachuted into Bario via an RAF Beverly Transport plane along with seven tons of other supplies. They were engaged to help the Bario people to fight the rats who had virtually destroyed the food supplies. The Times report stated they were a gift "from the citizens of Kuching."


...Life is good. . . . .


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