Do you know a plague of locusts once hit North Borneo about a century ago in 1919?

The Sarawak Gazette on Dec 16, 1919 reported that until that year North Borneo had never suffered from a locust plague on a big scale.

“As far as is known the only occasion on which they have appeared previously was about fifteen years ago in the Tenom district, when they died out spontaneously without increasing to large proportions.”

The 1919 locust plague started in Tempasuk (Kota Belud) at the end of December 1918.

“The insects rapidly increased in number- their multiplication being doubtless assisted by favourable weather conditions and by June of this year they head spread to Kudat and Mempakad on the north, Membakut and Kuala Penyu on the south and Parenchangan in the Interior residency on the east,” the report stated.

By June, the locust plague hit the river Bengkoka in the Marudu district, the Sipitang district and the river Lingkabao in the Sandakan residency.

Fighting against locust plague

Since the locals and administrators of North Borneo were not familiar with locust plagues, they initially did not know how to fight it.

Eventually, they came up with a very labour-intensive solving method.

The report stated, “The first method of destruction used was to drive the hoppers into traps composed of sheets by a strip of smooth oilcloth sewn near the top. A pit was dug at the apex of the trip and filled with water with a little crude oil on the surface; on falling into this the locusts were immediately killed.

Another method to kill them, especially when labour was scarce is to poison them. The vegetation on which they were feeding was sprayed with sodium arsenite ‘with molasses being added to make the poisoned substances attractive’.

These methods were successful in killing the locusts, save for small swarms that escaped their fates.

By the end of 1919, North Borneo was almost free of locust plague. However, patrols were still being maintained to guard against the possibility of scattered individuals multiplying into swarms.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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