Gigantic Parktown Prawn makes the strong shudder

FOREIGN CLOSUP

February 10, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- You could almost see the shudder run up the spine of the Johannesburg pharmacist as he remembered his encounter with one of the city's most feared enemies.

"It was sitting in the entry hall, so I got out a field hockey stick just to knock it out the door," he said. "But as I approached it, it turned to face me, rose up on its legs and hissed. I've never seen anything like it."

The enemy he was describing as something out of a true-life horror flick was the so-called Parktown Prawn, a giant insect that plagues Johannesburg residents this time of year.

Prawn is the South African name for shrimp that are caught off the coast of Mozambique and famed for their large size. Parktown is a suburb of Johannesburg that gave its name to these creatures when they began appearing there a few years ago, though nearby neighborhoods -- Parkhust, Parkmore -- also claim it as an alliterative appendage.

It's not just that these creatures are big -- we're talking 3 inches long -- but with an odd sort of pink-brown-burnt butterscotch color, they are also exceptionally ugly to all but the most dedicated entomologist's eye.

With a tough exterior skeletal system, they do not go quietly into that good night when confronted with the sole of a shoe, but instead crunch and crackle in a sickening way, leaving behind remains that demand a suitable burial.

And that's only if you can catch them.

For one, they have a defense mechanism that's somewhere between a skunk and a squid, spewing out a gooey, stinky black substance when caught. What they are actually doing is defecating and, considering that their diet consists of rotting snails, dog feces and other such remains of the night, the resulting odor is vile and resistant to removal.

For another, they can jump great distances, nimbly avoiding capture as they use hooks on their legs to cling to drapes, carpets, bedding, whatever. Some claim they even jump at you in a counterattack that can be quite effective.

The basic Parktown Prawn nightmare is to wake up in the middle of the night with a 3-inch insect gripped firmly to your bedclothes, refusing to let go and run away like any other self-respecting bug when confronted with an enormous human being. Then, as your flailing grows more desperate, it lets loose its load of stinking goo. There goes one good night's sleep and maybe several more.

The Parktown Prawn's jumping ability is not surprising, since it is actually a cricket. Its scientific name is Libanasidus vittatus, and it is one of 300 species of king crickets found in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

The pharmacist's recollection of a hiss from his fearless Prawn was not just a product of his overworked imagination. They make such a noise by rubbing their hind legs against their abdomens when disturbed or seeking a mate.

The Parktown Prawn is thought to have originated in the forests north and east of Johannesburg, making it to the big city a few decades ago, perhaps clinging to the roots of a plant destined for a suburban garden.

Such a habitat suited them quite well; well-watered gardens duplicate the conditions of the forests from whence they came. So they happily began munching on garden snails and other rotting remains until they started making their occasional forays into peoples' houses and urban legends. The drought-breaking rains of this summer have made it a very good year for Prawns.

Stories of their "Night of the Living Dead"-like resilience abound. One television report claimed that a Prawn survived being flushed down a toilet, reappearing at a most delicate moment, much to the shock of a seated homeowner.

There has even been a play written about them by a local writer. "The Ugly Noo Noo" was something of a hit a few years back.

As with cockroaches in the United States, the Prawns are supposed to be getting more and more resistant to normal defenses. They are considered to be a tough, but not impossible, kill for exterminators.

But, say the Prawn's defenders, why kill them? They are $H harmless and, if you get them back out into your garden, will go about their useful job of getting rid of pesky snails and generally cleaning the place up like some small-scale vulture.

Just keep a couple of hockey sticks handy.

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