Locust swarms in Africa are worst in decades

Grasshoppers, photo by Marisa Barrett on Unsplash
Grasshoppers, photo by Marisa Barrett on Unsplash

The hum of millions of locusts on the move is broken by the screams of farmers and the clanging of pots and pans. But their noise-making does little to stop the insects from feasting on their crops in this rural community.

The worst outbreak of desert locusts in Kenya in 70 years has seen hundreds of millions of the bugs swarm into the East African nation from Somalia and Ethiopia.

The desert locust is one of about a dozen species of short-horned grasshoppers that are known to change their behavior and can form swarms of adults. The swarms can be dense and highly mobile.

“Even cows are wondering what is happening,” said Ndunda Makanga, who spent hours Friday trying to chase the locusts from his farm. “Corn, sorghum, cowpeas, they have eaten everything.”

When rains arrive in March and bring new vegetation across much of the region, the numbers of the fast-breeding locusts could grow 500 times before drier weather in June curbs their spread, the United Nations says.

About $70 million is needed to step up aerial pesticide spraying, the only effective way to combat them, according to the UN.

The rose-colored locusts turn whole trees pink, clinging to branches like quivering ornaments before taking off in hungry, rustling clouds.

Farmers are afraid to let their cattle out for grazing, and their crops of millet, sorghum and maize are vulnerable, but there is little they can do.

“This one, ai! This is huge,” said Kipkoech Tale, a migratory pest control specialist with the agriculture ministry. “I’m talking about over 20 swarms that we have sprayed. We still have more. And more are coming.”

A single swarm can contain up to 150 million locusts per square kilometer of farmland, an area the size of almost 250 football fields, regional authorities say.

One especially large swarm in northeastern Kenya measured 60 kilometers long by 40 kilometers wide (37 miles long by 25 miles wide).

“Kenya needs more spraying equipment to supplement the four planes now flying,” Tale said. Ethiopia also has four.

Climate change to blame for bad locust swarms
“A changing climate has contributed to exceptional breeding conditions,” said Nairobi-based climate scientist Abubakr Salih Babiker. “Heavy rainfall and warmer temperatures are favorable conditions for locust breeding and in this case the conditions have become exceptional.”

“Heavy rains in East Africa made 2019 one of the region’s wettest years on record,” said Babiker. He blamed rapidly warming waters in the Indian Ocean off Africa’s eastern coast, which also spawned an unusual number of strong tropical cyclones off Africa last year.

On their way to Uganda
Migrating with the wind, the locusts can cover up to 150 kilometers (93 miles) in a single day. They look like tiny aircraft lazily crisscrossing the sky.

They are now heading toward Uganda and fragile South Sudan, where almost half the country faces hunger as it emerges from civil war. Uganda has not had such an outbreak since the 1960s and is already on alert.

“The situation is very bad but farmers are fighting it in the traditional way,” said Buni Orissa, a resident of Ethiopia’s Sidama region. “The locusts love cabbage and beans. This may threaten the shaky food security in the region.”

Even before this outbreak, nearly 20 million people faced high levels of food insecurity across the East African region long challenged by periodic droughts and floods.

As frustrated farmers look for more help in fighting one of history’s most persistent pests, the FAQ’s Locust Watch offers little consolation.

Source: AP

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