A local resident tries to swot away a swarm of desert locusts in Mathiakani, Kitui County, Kenya, on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020. The number of locusts in East Africa could expand 500 times by June, the UN's Food & Agriculture Organisation said last month. (Patrick Meinhardt/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
In late February, farmers in central and northern Kenya began to breathe sighs of relief. The billions of desert locusts that had been decimating their crops — eating as much food a day as Kenya’s entire population — were beginning to die off, just in time for a new planting season. Many of the swarms were killed by pesticides sprayed from the air; others died of old age.
But far from being over, East Africa’s locust nightmare may just be beginning.
Before they died, the swarms of locusts bred and laid eggs across wide swathes of Kenya and southern Ethiopia (and probably in parts of Somalia too, although information from here is patchy). Most of these eggs have now hatched, and the adolescent locusts are gathering strength. These adolescents are known as hoppers: they are bright pink, to deter predators, and cannot fly yet. Instead, they move across arid areas on the ground, eating voraciously to fuel their growth.
Only now are the hoppers beginning to reach maturation, and will form into airborne swarms.
“There is an awful lot of breeding that was not detected, that was not controlled, and now another generation of swarms is forming,” said Keith Cressman, the chief locust forecaster for the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), We’re seeing reports every day, more and more from Kenya, of these swarms.”
In February, the FAO described the locust swarms in East Africa as the biggest that the region has seen for the last 70 years. Because locust swarms increase exponentially, the size of these new swarms could be up to 20 times bigger. They will reach maturity at the beginning of East Africa’s main planting season, posing a threat to the food security of millions of people.
“The situation remains extremely alarming in the Horn of Africa, specifically Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, where widespread breeding is in progress and new swarms are starting to form, representing an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods at the beginning of the upcoming cropping season,” said the FAO in its latest desert locust situation update.
The response to this threat has been complicated by the Covid-19 pandemic. “As we speak, Kenya has been hit by two major problems: Covid-19, now taking centre stage, and the desert locusts in the back seat,” said Baldwyn Torto, a scientist at the Nairobi-based International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology. His team is working on preparing a rapid response team to respond to the new wave of swarms. “We just hope that there are still government authorities with locusts still on their radar amidst the uncertain times we live in now.”
In most countries affected by Covid-19, locust control efforts have been included under the essential services exempted from restrictions on movement. This means the teams that gather information about the location of the locust swarms, and the teams that are trained to contain them, are able to move freely. So far, supplies of aviation fuel and pesticide have not been seriously affected by global travel restrictions, Cressman said.
For now, given the unusually wet conditions — “Locusts love that fresh natural vegetation” — Cressman does not anticipate that the locust swarms will move away from East Africa. By mid-April, the fully mature locusts are likely to breed again, possibly growing in size by another 20 times. It is only in June that the insects will move on, using the south-west monsoon to get to desert areas in Pakistan and India.
By then, affected farmers in East Africa would have lost a planting season. The FAO has warned that the food security of up to 25-million people in the region is at risk from the locust swarms — and that was before the economic effect of the Covid-19 epidemic is taken into account.