In East Africa, the locusts are coming back for more

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.

Read the Mail & Guardian’s special feature on how locust swarms form – and how these swarms got so big, so quickly.

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.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Africa Editor for @MailandGuardian. Also @ISSAfrica.

Related stories

Cambridge Food Jozini: Pandemic or not, the price-gouging continues

The Competition Commission has fined Cambridge Food Jozini for hiking the price of its maize meal during April

School closures come at a cost

The latest, unscientific decision to close schools again won’t help poor students. Strategies must be identified to help learners stay in school

What a sustainable Covid-19 recovery could look like

Bioeconomy — using renewable biological resources — will allow Africa to transform its systems and create a viable economic future, global warming

False dawn gives Ace all the cards

The unrepentant, recalcitrant ANC secretary general thinks it’s okay for his and other wayward comrades’ kids to loot

Sekhukhune’s five-year battle for water back in court

The residents of five villages are calling for the district municipal manager to be arrested

The media is dead, long live the king

The state of King Mswati’s health is just one of many contentious issues that cannot be reported on in eSwatini
Advertising

New education policy on gender violence released

Universities and other higher education institutions have to develop ways of preventing or dealing with rape and other damaging behaviour

Cambridge Food Jozini: Pandemic or not, the price-gouging continues

The Competition Commission has fined Cambridge Food Jozini for hiking the price of its maize meal during April

Sekhukhune’s five-year battle for water back in court

The residents of five villages are calling for the district municipal manager to be arrested

Vaccine trial results due in December

If successful, it will then have to be manufactured and distributed
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday