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"Dangers of the Tropics" from Tactical and Technical Trends

The following article for soldiers on precautions for the Tropics was originally printed in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 19, February 25, 1943.

[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the U.S. War Department publication Tactical and Technical Trends. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]


To Europeans and Americans whose traditions and experience are mainly associated with lands in the temperate zones, the Tropics have taken on a glamor or an atmosphere of terror far beyond that warranted by the actual differences between the two areas. Professional travelers, fiction writers, and others have exaggerated both the enchanting and the bad features of the Tropics. By placing particular stress on the latter they strive to enhance their own heroism and fortitude at the expense of literal truth. Much of the distortion of facts comes from picturing conditions in many tropical regions as they were long ago, with the implication that the same conditions exist today. The situation is similar to that in many parts of rural France, where even today one may find people who firmly believe that a trip from Washington to Philadelphia is fraught with great danger of attack from savage Redskins. This belief is no more absurd than that of a large portion of our own population to the effect that the traveler in equatorial Africa is in constant danger of capture by cannibalistic natives or of attack by blood-thirsty wild animals. Knowledge of conditions in the Oceanic Islands is probably even more distorted.

Most Americans, especially those born and raised in the city, are far enough removed from their pioneer ancestors to have lost the knack of taking care of themselves under any and all conditions, and it would be foolish to say that, without any training, they would be in no danger if lost in the New Guinea or some other Pacific island jungles. On the other hand, however, they would be in just as great danger if lost in the mountains of western Pennsylvania or other portions of our own country. The only difference is that there would be less tendency for a person to become panicky if so lost in his homeland than if it occurred abroad, because he would not be haunted by recollections of hair-raising tales of adventure. Actually there is no more reason to be afraid under one set of circumstances than the other, and neither here nor abroad are the conditions such that one need lose his head or become unduly concerned over his situation.

Popular literature is filled with references to poisonous snakes, man-eating crocodiles, savage beasts, noxious insects, blazing heat, torrential rains, and poisonous plants and trees. If the daring soul who ventures into the Tropics survives all these and is not decapitated by headhunters and eaten by cannibals, he is pictured as returning home wasted by fevers, his nerves completely shattered by his terrible experiences, in fact only a fragile husk of his former virile self. By way of reassurance to those who do not know the Tropics at firsthand, it might be well to review some of these popular "perils" more closely.


One of the first questions asked the tropical traveler is "how about snakes?" The popular writer-lecturer-Sunday-supplement explorer is prone to picture the jungle traveler as one who proceeds warily with one eye turned upward to watch for pythons or boa constrictors hanging from limbs awaiting the chance to cast their coils about the body of an unwary wayfarer, while the other eye searches the ground to spot the venomous snakes lurking in the grass ready to sink a pair of poison-drenched fangs into his lower extremities. The truth of the matter is that, unless he is a trained student of the science of reptiles, the jungle traveler will do well if he sees more than one or two snakes a month--and when he does, the view will probably be fleeting, as the snake most likely will be making every effort to disappear. There are no land snakes in the more remote Polynesian islands, and there were none in Hawaii until a minute, wormlike blindsnake was accidentally introduced there in recent years. Most of the islands of the East Indies have both venomous and non-venomous types. There are four kinds of snakes on the Fiji Islands, including one venomous variety. There are many kinds on the Solomon Islands, and Australia has an abundance of them, but nearby New Zealand has none. Only harmless kinds occur in the Galapagos Islands.

The poisonous snakes in New Guinea and the large neighboring islands are relatives of the Indian cobra, and their venom affects the nervous system (in contrast to the North American poisonous snakes, whose venom affects the blood stream). If one should inadvertently step on one of these snakes, a bite would most probably be the result. The chances of this happening to people traveling along trails or waterways are probably about the same as those of being struck by lightning. One large party, composed of some 700 men, traversed a considerable area in New Guinea some years ago and in a year's time did not have a single person bitten by a snake. New Guinea is as well infested with poisonous snakes as any part of Melanesia, but it probably is less dangerous from this source than New Mexico, Florida, or Texas, for example. This is not to say that one should be utterly careless of the possibility of snake bites, but ordinary precautions against them are sufficient. When natives are bitten, it usually happens when they are clearing new land for their gardens. One should be particularly watchful when clearing ground for a camp site, trail, or the like and also when roaming in the brush gathering fire wood. While most of the snakes in New Guinea, Australia, and neighboring large islands are non-venomous, the safest procedure is to regard all of them as poisonous and to treat any bite accordingly. There are pythons in New Guinea, but even if they would attack a human being--which they will not do--there is no snake of the constrictor variety in this region large enough to harm a man.


"Crocodile-infested rivers and swamps" is another catch phrase of the Tropics. New Guinea certainly has its share of crocodiles, but authentic cases of their attacking human beings are practically impossible to find. Occasional rare instances are reported where an old and very large crocodile unable to catch its normal food has acquired the habit of preying on people. The bite of a crocodile is weak, as it does not masticate its food but swallows it whole. No crocodile would attempt to attack any man or animal too large to swallow. To swallow a small man, a crocodile would have to be at least 15 or 16 feet long, a size rarely seen. There is no need to fear a crocodile's teeth, formidable though they may appear, but if approaching or attempting to kill one along the shore, care should be taken to avoid the sweep of its tail. They can move very swiftly, and the powerful tail is heavy enough to break a man's leg.


Another favorite theme of the professional traveler is that of the dangerous wild animals. This probably is the most fallacious idea of all. In Africa where lions, leopards, and such carnivorous beasts abound, it usually is necessary for photographers and others to obtain pictures of them on the large preserves, where the animals roam about as do the bears in Yellowstone National Park. In areas where the beasts are not protected, they are shy and seldom are seen without the aid of experienced guides. When encountered, the one thought of the beast is to escape. All large animals, of course, can be dangerous if cornered or if they are suddenly startled at close quarters. This is especially true for females with young. The chances of this happening, however, are remote. The idea that big game hunting is dangerous is largely bunk. There are no carnivorous animals in the South Pacific, but in Sumatra, Bali, Borneo, and southeastern Asia there are tigers. There again, it takes a skillful hunter and some luck to see one. The rare instances where human beings have been attacked were the result of old animals, unable to obtain their normal food, being forced to attempt to get a native.


Tropical insects as a rule have had their noxious nature greatly over-stressed, and the tenderfoot often has undergone much needless worry on that score. They do abound, however, and some varieties may act as transmitters of disease. Ordinary precautions should be taken against them, but they should not be regarded in the sense of a great peril. Mosquitoes generally are the most prevalent kind of noxious insect, and in many cases they are carriers of malaria; hence their bites should be guarded against. In the Southwest Pacific area, malaria is an important problem. Since malaria mosquitoes generally fly only in the evening and at night, the best way to escape infection is to get under a net or into a screened enclosure as soon as possible after sunset. This, of course, is not always possible for all on a military expedition. When on evening or night duty, exposed portions of the body should be reduced as much as practicable. Malaria itself is not as terrifying an affliction as it is usually described to be. It is decidedly uncomfortable but, with modern medicines and methods of treatment, it rarely becomes a critical ailment. In localities distant from human habitation, no disease should result from mosquito bites. Mud packs offer some relief from the itching which they cause.

Wasps and bees may be abundant in some places, but will rarely attack unless their nests are interfered with. In case of stings, mud packs are very helpful. In some areas there are tiny bees, called sweat-bees, that may collect on exposed parts of the body in enormous numbers during dry weather, especially if one is perspiring profusely. They are stingless and, until one has completely stopped sweating, the only thing to do is to scrape them off with the hand, hundreds at a time. The honey made by these bees is not edible, as too much perspiration goes into its composition. The larger centipedes and scorpions can inflict painful but not deadly stings. These creatures like dark, warm places, so it is always advisable to shake one's blankets before turning in at night, and to make sure that none are hidden in the clothing or shoes before dressing. Spider bites may be painful but are rarely serious, and as a matter of fact are not often incurred. Ants are a remote, although possible, source of danger to injured men lying on the ground and unable to move. This should be borne in mind in placing wounded where they may have to remain for some time.

In some localities certain butterflies collect to gather perspiration from the human body in dry weather. They are somewhat annoying but quite harmless. In Indo-Chinese countries the rice-borer moth of the lowlands collects around lights in great numbers during certain seasons of the year. It is a small, plain-colored moth with a pair of tiny black spots on the wings. It should never be brushed off roughly, as the minutely barbed hairs of its body may be ground into the skin, causing a sore much like a burn that often takes weeks to heal.


Leeches are common throughout most of the islands in the Southwest Pacific, and the Malay Peninsula. They are found in swampy areas, streams, and moist jungle country. In these areas they are found not only in the water but also clinging to vegetation. They are not poisonous, but their bites may become infected if not cared for properly, and the small wound** that they cause may provide a point of entry for the organisms which cause tropical ulcers or "jungle-sores." One should watch for leeches on the body and brush them off before they have had time to bite. When they have taken hold, they should not be pulled off forcibly, but rather made to release themselves and drop off by touching them with a moist cud of tobacco (this is especially effective if some red pepper is mixed in the tobacco), by touching them lightly with the burning end of a cigarette or a coal from the fire, or by dropping some alcohol on them. Leeches try to reach mucous membranes and frequently enter the rectum or penis without attracting attention until an itching sensation begins. Urination usually removes them immediately from the penis, but medical help may be needed to remove one from the rectum. After being satiated, however, leeches frequently leave the rectum with an evacuation. This may produce a certain amount of blood flow that may be mistaken for the beginning of dysentery, but its short duration will remove all fears on that score.


Dysentery, which with malaria constitutes the twin ailments of the Tropics, is usually acquired through drinking polluted water. Pollution has nothing to do with the clearness or muddiness of the water. It is the result of contamination by human beings, and much of the water is polluted. Water from all "lived on" small streams or native wells should be avoided. The muddy water of large rivers frequently can be used with safety. The safest procedure, of course, is to boil all drinking water, at least 20 minutes to be on the safe side, unless the purity of the source can be ascertained with certainty.


Another category of fictitious dangers lies in the poisonous plants and trees. Such tales are of all degrees of frightfulness, from the man-eating Madagascar tree to the legendarily deadly Upas tree which, while incapable of affecting men or animals at a distance -- a trait attributed to it by Javanese tradition -- contains a sap which is poisonous when used on the projectile points of the natives. The truth of the matter is that nettles, particularly tree nettles, are about the worst that one will encounter, and one stinging from this source is sufficient to educate the victim to a ready recognition of the plant so that the mishap does not occur again. There are some trees, called Ringas by the Malays, the sap of which affects some people in much the same way as poison oak. Our own poison ivy and poison sumac, however, are much worse and much more likely to cause trouble. Danger from poisonous plants is much greater in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, or in the woods of our own eastern seaboard, than it is in New Guinea or the Tropics anywhere. Thorny thickets, such as rattan, should be avoided as one would avoid a blackberry patch.


Tropical climate is also frequently maligned. It is true that the climate as a whole is much warmer than that of the temperate zones, but it is not because one gets so much hotter in the Tropics than elsewhere that the idea of excessively high temperatures has gained credence; rather it is because the heat is more continual and persistent. In regions where the air is humid, the heat may seem more oppressive than it actually is. As a matter of fact, however, tropical travelers often complain that they have never experienced such heat and discomfort in the "jungles" as in some of our own cities in the summer time -- Washington, D. C., for example. Conversely, there may be more suffering from cold in the Tropics than from heat. Of course at ordinary altitudes low temperatures do not occur, but chilly days and nights are far from uncommon. At higher levels the nights may even be cold. The contrast between hot days and cold nights, however, is not as marked in forested areas as in the desert.

Tropical rain is another subject generally mentioned. It certainly is true that precipitation in many parts of the Tropics is much greater than that in all but a few areas of the temperate zones. Tropical downpours usually are followed by clear skies, and in most localities the rains conform to a fairly predictable time table. Except in a few areas where the fall may be continuous during the rainy season, there are not many days when the sun does not shine part of the time. Residents of the Tropics usually plan their activities so that they are able to stay under shelter during the rainy and hot portions of the day. After becoming accustomed to it, most tropical dwellers prefer the mild and equable climate of the torrid zones to the vagaries of more northern climes.


New Guinea and the Solomon Islands are popularly believed to be the haunts of headhunters and cannibals. Fifty years ago this was true, and it is true today in much lesser degree in certain areas. A considerable portion of the interior of Dutch New Guinea is occupied by hostile tribes that are likely to be dangerous to small parties. This is particularly true of the natives of the interior lake plain. They are armed only with bows and arrows and are so excitable that they are prone to reveal intended ambushes by shouting or firing their arrows too soon. If attacked, a small force armed with modern weapons should be able to disperse them without serious difficulty. There still may be places in the interior of British New Guinea where the natives are treacherous, but for the most part these have been brought under control. Headhunting and cannibalism are usually practiced at the expense of traditional enemy tribes, although strangers occasionally may be attacked without provocation. For the most part, whites can get along with natives by treating them with the same respect that would be given peoples in civilized countries. This involves respect for privacy and personal property, and the observance of local customs and taboos. One should not enter a native house without being invited, nor should fruits be picked or sago trees cut without ascertaining their ownership, gaining permission, and paying for them. If one is tempted by the women of the wild tribes (and not many are likely to be), a case of venereal disease can be expected as a follow-up, this being one of the "benefits" of civilization conferred by the whites.

Apart from New Guinea, the Admiralty Islands are about the only other region in which the natives have a bad reputation. This of course refers to unprovoked attacks. Any natives may be dangerous if badly or unjustly treated, or if undue liberties are taken with their women without regard to local custom.

Those about to experience the Tropics for the first time will soon learn these facts for themselves, but a little advance knowledge may relieve them of some concern.

*Prepared in the Smithsonian Institution, this article is written by an authority on the area discussed and is based on scientific, firsthand experience.

**In this connection, it may be cited here that open sores and scratches can become easily infected in the Tropics, and measures for disinfection should be promptly taken.


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