image Photo: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Locust Watch

Israel: Prepared to defeat any potential locust invasion

As desert locusts increasingly devastate enormous swathes of territory on the Asian and African continents, Israel seemingly remains “insusceptible” to the plague.

Israeli authorities are nevertheless remaining vigilant against the threat posed by the pests, which has been estimated as the most serious in 70 years.

TV7 was told today by the Spokesperson of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Dafna Yurista, that the situation is being carefully monitored “24 hours a day, 365 days a year.” So far there has yet to be a sign of the desert locusts, although Ms. Yurista described that status as fluid.

She also emphasized that due to Israel’s advanced technology and preparedness, there is confidence among the nation’s agricultural experts that any swarms would be eradicated soon after their detection.

The last encounter the Jewish State had with the destructive insects was in 2013. According to the Agricultural Ministry Spokesperson, the country combated the swarms “with 100% success.” They were not only completely destroyed with the use of pesticides, but the mission was accomplished without any damage to local agriculture or wildlife – in an effort Ms. Yurista described as nothing short of “amazing.”

That “amazing” success is largely due to the untiring efforts of a specialized team lead by Dr. Yoav Motro, who is the head of the Agricultural Ministry’s Department of Vertebrates and Snails – and also the director of the nation’s battle against locusts.

Dr. Motro, who led the 2013 campaign, told TV7 in an exclusive interview that it was “a tough job.” The first wave that hit Israel 7 years ago entered from the Egyptian-Sinai border, and was a 7 kilometer long and 2 kilometer wide swarm of locusts– amounting to an astonishing 14 million square meters. “We wanted to ensure that their first day in Israel was their last,” he underscored.

When asked to what he attributed the mission’s outstanding victory, he said it was mostly trial-and-error by today’s state. “There were no Israeli farmers 100 years ago,” he said, adding modestly, “and we learned as we went along – including from our mistakes.”

Innate Israeli ingenuity appears to have been vital, to which Dr. Motro specifically credited to one pesticide sprayer by the name of Yoav Muller. “This wonderful guy,” said Dr. Motro, was unceasing in his efforts. After spraying insecticide all day in an exhausting enterprise, Muller wanted to press on after the sun went down.

This turned out to be key. As it turns out, the locusts go to sleep about half-hour after dark – when they became particularly vulnerable to these night-time efforts.

“We share this success and this experience,” said Dr. Motro of his team, adding, “It wouldn’t have succeeded without them.”

“They all have other things to do,” he told TV7, emphasizing that, “They all have families they missed. They all faced the difficulties of long days and nights in the desert.” After describing his colleagues as having been “my best buddies since then,” he went on to say, “and I will need them again in the next campaign.”

Dr. Motro is also leading the current 2020 undertaking to make Israel as “inhospitable an environment to the locusts as possible.” This includes scrutinizing winds blowing in from the east. He carefully coordinates efforts with neighboring Jordan, which he hailed for doing “a wonderful job” in halting approaching swarms just 20 kilometers from the Israeli border last year.  Dr. Motro disclosed that Israel maintains excellent coordination not only with the Hashemite Kingdom, but also with the Palestinian Authority and Egypt to keep the insects at bay.

Unfortunately, a mix of politics and security issues interfere with such success in Africa.

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations is warning that the current infestation in East Africa remains “extremely alarming” and poses “an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods since it coincides with the current growing season.”

19 million people in the region already suffered a chronic shortage of food even before being confronted with the worst locust invasion in a generation, complicated even further with disruptions caused by the coronavirus.

Hungry swarms have been devouring farm and grazing land across Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya since December 2019. City-sized clouds of locusts can fly up to 150 km (90 miles) a day with the wind, and adults can consume roughly their own weight in fresh food per day.

Experts say that a single square kilometer swarm consists of 40 -80 million insects that are capable consuming as much food as 35,000 people – in a single day.

Control operations are ongoing in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, which have all sustained heavy damage by the locusts.

According to the latest FAO Desert Locust situation update, mature swarms of the devastating pests moved further north in Kenya this past week, where they have been laying eggs. After hatching, young locusts known as “hoppers” are earthbound for two weeks, and more vulnerable to the spraying of insecticides. Several new hopper bands have been detected in the northwestern counties of Marsabit and Turkana. Chronic shortages of the necessary equipment have impeded efforts by Nairobi authorities to combat the infestation, which have now been exacerbated by the significant reduction of global air freight due to the coronavirus.

At least 75% of the population is dependent on agricultural activities in Kenya. The FAO’s Representative to the country, Dr. Tobias Takavarasha, has been cited as describing the situation as a disaster capable of inflicting far greater damage than either droughts or floods.

Progress against the swarms has been reported in Ethiopia due to control measures in the south of the country, although mature swarms have moved into the northeast (Afar) and eastern (Somali) regions. Hopper bands have also continued to mature near Dire Dawa, as well as in adjacent areas of northwest Somalia. Mature adults have also been located near the Ethiopia border in the central Somali region of Galguduud.

Limited breeding has been reported in the southeastern sector of South Sudan near Torit where a few hopper bands have formed.

There is increasing concern in Yemen due to recent rainfall.  Adult groups and swarms are laying eggs, which are hatching and forming new bands in the interior and along the southern coast.

Control operations are ongoing in Saudi Arabia and Oman. Immature adult groups have been sighted in Saudi Arabia and are reported to be forming near the Persian Gulf, and hopper groups are still evident in the norther Nafud Desert. Immature groups and a few hopper groups have also been located in northern interior Omani territory, near the United Arab Emirates.

The situation is also dire in Iran, where the FAO says that “hopper bands are maturing along the southwestern coastal plains, and another generation of breeding is underway in the southeast where hatching is taking place on the coast near Jask and in the interior of Sistan-Baluchistan.”

As the swarms threaten to destroy crops worth more than $7 billion, the Ayatollah Regime appears likely to deploy the military for a second year to help in the fight against locusts. The Spokesman of the Plant Protection Organization of Iran’s Agriculture Ministry, Mohammad Reza Mir, told the semi-official ILNA news agency that the desert locusts have attacked more than 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres) of orchards and farmland in seven of Iran’s 31 provinces.

Mir also said that the affected areas – which stretch from eastern Iran on the border with Pakistan to the southwestern border with Iraq – were likely to soon increase to 1 million hectares. “The military have promised to help fight the desert locusts, including by providing all-terrain vehicles for use in areas which are hard to access,” Mir told ILNA. “Last year the military provided personnel and vehicles, and that was a big help.”

The infestation compounded problems facing the Islamic Republic, which has also been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 69 new deaths have been reported over the last 24 hours, to a total mortality rate of 7,057. Tehran’s oil exports have sunk to a record low as the virus crisis has sharpened the impact of U.S. sanctions, which further limit shipments.

Control operations are also underway in Pakistan and India. Swarms of locusts are said to have invaded Pakistan’s Khaliq Abad, Dalbandin. Adult groups have also been migrating from breeding areas in Baluchistan and the Indus Valley, while hopper groups have been sighted in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The adult groups have also been spreading from Pakistan to its border with India. Over the past few days, these groups and other small swarms that arrived from Pakistan have moved east into Rajasthan, reaching Jodhpur. The FAO forecasts that some swarms could continue further east. Farmers in the city of Ajmer in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan have been particularly worried over their newly sown crops. Video shot in the area shows the skies dark with locust swarms. Local authorities and the fire department have sprayed pesticides in an attempt to control the infestation, but according to local reports at least 3-5% of the town’s crops have been damaged.

While the situation remains calm in West Africa, there is increasing risk the territory could be affected from mid-June onwards – jeopardizing the start of the harvest. The United Nations fears that new swarms from current breeding in India will form and possibly migrate to the summer breeding areas along both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border into West Africa as well as to Sudan.

The is also rising concern, says the FAO, that “several swarms from spring breeding areas in Arabia and East Africa (Kenya and Ethiopia) could reach the eastern part of the Sahel in eastern Chad starting in about a month if they migrate before the summer rains commence. While the current threat is assessed as low, it can change significantly in the coming weeks based on rainfall, winds, and the locust situation in Arabia and East Africa.” The U.N. agency is therefore advocating that “investments in preparedness and anticipatory actions should be immediately and quickly scaled up to face this potential threat.”

For now, thanks to Dr. Yoav Motro – who spends most of his day “out in the field” – and his team, Israel remains protected from the mighty scourge.

— By Erin Viner