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The Ant Show: When Bugs Attack
Team two climbed into the old, open-air Land Rover, feeling exceptionally hard-core, and for good reason. We managed to snag the “cool”, windowless truck whereas the other team was stuck with the big white, substantially less-hardcore van that looked more like a soccer mom’s dream than a game counting vehicle. Ours’ felt fitting for the task at hand; we were about to embark into the field and become mini Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) scientists, ready to participate in a population survey. CCF regularly implements such surveys to record animal populations, as a part of the scientific research conducted at its center in Otjiwarango, Namibia.
Matti, CCF’s longest serving ecologist, climbed into the driver’s seat. His job revolves around combating bush encroachment, a problem that leads to the loss of suitable habitat for the cheetah, and he wished to personally expose us to the damage by taking us out into the field.
“Your typical Disneyland as you wanted to see is no more,” he warned us, referring to a tourist’s tendency to picture and expect vast savanna plains hosting typical, umbrella-shaped acacia trees against a magnificent sunset. Instead, thorny acacia bushes are everywhere, replicating at full speed and damaging cheetah’s eyes with their thorns.
Disneyland or not, the field was striking. Vultures posed as if eager to be photographed, perched atop peaks of menacing termite mounds before a dramatic mosaic of billowing clouds, rendering the birds ominous silhouettes. Black-backed jackals froze with perked ears to study us from within curtains of golden grass and red hartebeests blatantly ignored us as they continued munching their green snacks without pause. In addition to the relatively calm presence of deer-like springboks, the environment cast a deceptive ambiance of serenity.
“What is that?” Someone piped up from the back. Up ahead there appeared to be some sort of disturbance in the air. A brown-tinted cloud hovered above the road convulsing in a mess of air-borne scribbles. Earlier we passed a few sparsely-populated swarms of flying ants, but surely this could not be the same thing.
It was. A dense wave of winged, squirming ants formed a fluid stream through the air, hovering directly over our vehicle’s path. Suddenly, our bodies were bombarded by little insect torpedoes as the glistening creatures filtered through the truck. So much for scoring the only vehicle with no windows. I could feel their light legs tickling up mine, and according to my peripheral, quite a few struggled like slimy fish in the nets of my hair. Unprepared for this surprise attack, our screams were vocal fireworks through the Namibian evening and we hurriedly brushed little intruders off our clothing. As quickly as it had begun, the chaos subsided and we were through. In relief, we laughed it off, flicked an ant or ten out of the truck and continued driving into our illusion of success.
Dread suffused our battle-worn hearts when we looked ahead; it appeared as though word of our presence had spread, as dozens of teeming, wing-twittering colonies converged into a joint force. This time our shrieks started early, in cowering anticipation for the unavoidable ambush. Our truck lurched forward through the storm, and then the whirlwind of flying ants was upon us. Like nose-diving hail, they assaulted our vehicle, unconvinced that they could not penetrate the solid car door. Their army rampaged into the vehicle’s interior, showering us mighty game-counters with little bodies and legs that thankfully did not come in contact with my skin this time. I threw on my hood in an attempt of self-preservation and spat an intruder out of my mouth, adding to the cacophony of disgusted squeals.
“I’ve never seen anything like this!” Mattie shouted in hysterical laughter. He gad to yell to be heard over the surrounding disarray that could have been mistaken for a downpour -- except these raindrops were segment-bodied arthropods and I was not sure what type of downpour I preferred. Even less comforting was Matti’s unfamiliarity with the phenomenon. Might I add that Matti has been doing ecological work in the area since 1997. That’s about eleven, flying-ant-attack-free, years.
One of the other teams smugly whizzed by in their enclosed, soccer-mom-van, offering no encouragement whatsoever. They pointed and appeared to be laughing behind their luxuriously-shut windows, leaving us in their very not-hardcore dust. I glanced back at my teammates from the pink cave of my hood. Matti and I were relatively sheltered by the windshield in comparison to the others, but the elevated back-row occupants were not so fortunate. They were gone; all had disappeared beneath the purple tarp of a jumbo-sized raincoat peppered with writhing ants, ants and more ants.
“What a show!” Exclaimed Matti. “I went to Disneyland and saw a bug show. That was not real. This is real!”
Eventually, we emerged from the infested bewilderment and temporarily abandoned ship to dance flying ants out of our pants. When we piled back into the Land Rover, bug-free as far as we knew, Matti said rather tenderly, “What I like about these bugs is they are very friendly actually. They mean you no harm.” No harm done, I thought, although I might not go so far as to describe getting a mouthful of ants as a “friendly” experience. Point proven, it’s no Disneyland out there, but if it’s the adrenaline rush of a theme park you’re looking for, mama nature’s got it under control. Team number two would choose the Land Rover over the soccer mom van any day.