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Northern Cape farmers battle ‘horrific’ brown locust outbreak

Jan Marais* knew the brown locusts would be coming but the Northern Cape sheep farmer wasn’t prepared for the scale of the outbreak. 

“This year with the widespread rain we were expecting trouble,” says the farmer, who lives in the Hanover district. “It’s been horrific and has hit us quite badly.”

Marais says he hasn’t witnessed the scale of such swarms for many years. “When you see them on the horizon, it looks like dust from far … Next door to my farm we sprayed a swarm of about 500m by a kilometre and a half. You can think where they sit at night, they just eat absolutely everything. It’s just stalks there the next morning.”

While he fears the worst is not over, intensive pesticide spraying regimens seem to be working in his region.

“A week ago, if you asked me I would have said we’re being overwhelmed. We’re starting to get some control now, but not completely, and there are other areas that are being very badly affected in the Northern Cape and the Eastern Cape.

“Our grazing is already compromised from the prolonged drought and now the little bit of food that is coming up is being decimated by the locusts.”

Another local farmer, Elsie Vermeulen* tells how the swarms are destroying her grazing land. 

“Last night, my workers sprayed a two-kilometre-by-three-kilometre swarm. Our area hasn’t got rain. So it’s very dry so when it’s getting through, it eats a lot.”

A previous outbreak around a decade ago was nothing like this year, she says.

“We have areas being sprayed here that have never been sprayed before. Some areas have up to 27 bakkies in one area that’s deployed. In the 30 years I’ve been here, it hasn’t been this bad.”

Brown locusts are endemic to the semi-arid Karoo areas of South Africa and southern Namibia. The initial outbreaks started in September last year, with huge migrating adult swarms in November that infested parts of the Free State before being brought under control by authorities.

Dr Roger Price, research team leader at the Agricultural Research Council, says the current outbreak will slow down as the weather cools. 

“Time and time again, they’re only saved by the weather. This outbreak is normal, though this is a bit heavier than usual. It’s been bigger than most years but nowhere near a big outbreak.”

The Karoo probably has the highest outbreak frequency of any locust in the world, he says.

“We have outbreaks in the Karoo nine out of every 10 years but the last few years it’s been very quiet and people have forgotten about the locusts. But because they’ve had drought breaking rains in September October and then follow-up rains, we’ve had a very good locust season.”

The outbreak, he says, is medium-sized.

“It hit the news this year more than most because of social media. It’s normally hidden away in the Karoo. We have massive outbreaks in the Karoo that if the world knew about it would be world headlines.” 

Ikalafeng Kgakatsi, the director for climate change and disaster management at the  Northern Cape department of agriculture, environmental affairs, land reform and rural development, says the concern is that the locusts will move into irrigation areas in the Orange River or spill into the Free State. 

“We’re working with farmers and providing pesticides and we’ve been trying to control the situation to make sure we minimise the locusts. We hope this rain will bring the cold quicker. That will help us because if it’s hot and wet, they keep on coming.”

The South African National Biodiversity Institute says that while South Africa has succeeded in managing locust outbreaks in some respects, the challenge lies in the changing climate, which might promote outbreaks.

“The country would benefit greatly from detailed studies focusing on understanding the impact of land use change, climate change and other global change challenges in relation to the brown locust.”

* Names have been changed

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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