image Photo: Reuters

Locust “disaster” averted in East Africa, says FAO

Over a half a trillion Desert Locusts have been eliminated across East Africa since the beginning of 2020, and over 600,000 hectares have been controlled.

This according to the latest data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which has been leading the fight against damage to crops and range land in the region. Particular progress has been noted in Kenya, which suffered the worst desert locust invasion the country has seen in 70 years.  Today the pests have been detected in only a few of the 29 counties that were infested last February.

After assessing crop damage, FAO Representative in Kenya Tobias Takavarasha told Reuters that the UN’s efforts are to complement the work the government is doing in the county to reclaim land while also training local farmers so they can ultimately “become food self-sufficient. That is the hope of everyone.”

“We continue to monitor because locusts can go to places where they cannot easily reach and then emerge from there. So, we continue to strengthen our surveillance capacity, our control efforts and our livelihoods recovery efforts. It is a process,” said Takavarasha, underscoring that while “we can’t specify a specific date that by this date they will go – but we can simply say: by this date we have contained to a large extent what could have been a disaster.”

While the campaign can be considered a success, the FAO warns that ongoing infestations nevertheless remains a threat to people’s livelihood and food security. The threat of possible re-infestation toward the end of the year mandates careful and continued surveillance, as well as the bolstering of monitoring and response capacity across the region ahead of a potential renewed upsurge of the insects.

Massive aerial and ground operations combining surveillance, verification and control remain in effect in many nations to contain a second-generation of locusts, either at hopper or at swarm stage.

Stanley Kipkoech, who is a base manager at the northern Turkana County operation run by Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture, said that, “now, with the infestation levels of what we have now of the hoppers going up to 200 sites already identified as hoppers, very massive indeed, and therefore we expect a lot of destruction on the browse and vegetation.” He added that “what we are experiencing now are hatchlings which we call hoppers or rather in the biological terms they are called nymphs. At these nymphs’ stages, our focus is to control.”

Hopper bands have been filmed in the area roosting and covering tree trunks and tops, as farmers try to drive them out of cultivated fields. “We want to control them as fast as possible before they reach Instar 5 (last hopper stage) and young adults who will start again maybe copulating and laying more eggs,” said Turkana Country Operations Officer, Vitalis Juma, stressing that “the more you delay, the more they mature. And the more disaster that will come.”

Hundreds of FAO-trained National Youth Service (NYS) volunteers spray hopper bands in Turkana County as part of an action plan to boost governmental surveillance and control efforts, while clad in protective gear including suits, masks and gloves. Activity is only conducted in populated areas after advisories have been issued to villages or other vulnerable areas such as those where water bodies are located, to provide them with instructions on how to protect human and animal life.

Spray aircraft loaded with pesticide take off early each morning to take advantage of a 4-hour window before temperatures rise and swarms start flying. Helicopters and planes also conduct low-flying patrols for three or four hours in search of new swarms.

Targeted locations are first verified, after having been GPS-tagged by ground surveillance crews using the FAO’s eLocust3 app the previous day. This data stream is critical for coordination and response in all of the affected countries, and used by FAO headquarters to facilitate the monitoring, prediction and response to global locust movements.

The regional danger of food insecurity was already present before the locusts were deemed a major contributing risk from June-December 2020 – a situation further exacerbated by COVID-19.

According to the latest FAO Desert Locust Watch update:

During the past week, control operations continue against persistent immature swarms in the Horn of Africa. There were several new sightings of immature swarms in Samburu county in northwest Kenya while other swarms prevailed near the border of Uganda in Turkana County. Cool temperatures and local winds have limited their ability to migrate northwards, which suggests that some swarms may remain during the summer awaiting the Short Rains in October. In Uganda, control was carried out against one swarm that arrived from Turkana county on 12 August.

In northern Somalia, immature swarms persist on the plateau in the northwest and northeast. A large swarm was seen over Hargeisa (14 August). Other swarms are present in adjacent areas of eastern Ethiopia between Jijiga, Harar, Dire Dawa, and the Djibouti border, and numerous swarms are in the Afar region, partially as a result of several swarms migrating from Yemen. Good rains have caused large areas of green vegetation to develop that will allow breeding and a further increase in locust infestations during August and September.

Good rains continue to fall in the interior and coastal areas of Yemen where flooding has occurred in some places. Breeding is in progress in these areas, causing more hopper bands and swarms to form. Limited control operations were undertaken in a few places. In Oman, control teams treated hopper groups and bands on the southern coast near Salalah. If any swarms form, they are likely to move into eastern Yemen.

In Sudan, so far only low numbers of solitarious adults are present in the interior and there have been no reports of swarms arriving from Kenya. However, exceptionally good rains have fallen so far this month and much further north in the interior than usual. There was an unconfirmed report of a swarm on the Red Sea coast near the Sudan/Eritrea border that may have arrived from Yemen.

In Southwest Asia, summer breeding continues along both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border. In Pakistan, hopper groups and bands continue to form in the Nagarparkar area of southeast Sindh where fledging has started, and adults are forming small groups of adults. In India, widespread breeding is underway throughout Rajasthan where hoppers are forming groups and bands. More hatching is expected this month. There remains a risk that a few swarms could still arrive from northern Somalia. Control operations continue in both countries. The situation has returned to calm in Iran.

In West Africa, low numbers of solitarious locusts are present in the summer breeding areas of the northern Sahel in Chad, Niger, and Mauritania where local breeding will occur in areas where rains fell recently much further north than normal.

— By Erin Viner