Tackling a Locust Plague in the 21st Century: A Sustainability Issue

locust eating

To lift or not lift COVID-19 restrictions, and to what extent? This could be the pertinent question around the globe right now as the rate of infections continues to yo-yo, and the search for an antidote intensifies. In East Africa, and keeping in mind the corona virus situation, experts warn of an entirely different dilemma–that of food shortage–as a result of a locust outbreak that began at the end of 2019.


By May Livere

Swarms of desert locusts invaded the region, starting in Somalia and Ethiopia, before spreading to Kenya. By January of this year, Kenya was undergoing its worst locust infestation in 70 years. This was only the first invasion. The second one, predicted for June, would be more alarming. The sizes of the swarms were expected to grow by 400-fold, and the devastation 20 times worse.

Locust eggs hatch best in moist, humid conditions. Good rains in late March provided excellent breeding conditions for the second generation of locusts. Farmers, too, plant their crops during this season. The young swarms, aggressive feeders at this stage, were expected to emerge in June. They would be in time for mid-year harvests.

The desert locust situation update for June, by UN-FAO, reported numerous hopper bands in Northwest Kenya forming immature swarms from the second week of June until mid-July. More than 200 hopper bands sites were located in pasture and farmlands. The situation needed to be contained, and fast.

locust plague in sky at dusk
Desert Locust swarm
Photo credit: ©FAO/Sven Torfinn. Copyright FAO

Control measures in place from the first invasion continued in all the affected areas: aerial and ground spraying of pesticides, and surveillance via drones and teams on the ground. All this in the midst of a corona virus outbreak, with the pandemic lockdowns disrupting the emergency response effort to the invasion–movement was curtailed, social distancing had to be adhered to, and training and dispatch of surveillance teams was made difficult.

Even so, significant progress was made in the fight against desert locusts. At the start of August, UN-FAO declared the situation in Kenya contained. Only two out of the 29 counties (more than half the country) infested in February reported the presence of locusts. By September, the country was altogether free of large-scale infestations. About 500 billion desert locusts had been exterminated. Harvest losses caused by the insects stood at more than two billion dollars.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, it had been estimated that the locust plague would have more than 25 million people across East Africa face food insecurity, especially in areas with high density locust infestations. They are ravenous creatures, these locusts; a single locust consumes its own body weight in food per day. A square kilometer of a swarm contains 40 million to 80 million adult locusts, and travels up to 150 kilometers a day. A swarm of 40 million locusts will eat the same amount of food in one day as three million people.

motorcycle in locust swarm
Driving through a Desert Locust swarm
Photo credit:: FAO/Sven Torfinn. Copyright FAO

Little wonder, then, the threat to food security across East Africa. UN-FAO now warns of food shortage in the region due to the damage left behind by the vegetation-devouring pests. In Ethiopia, also a severely affected country, the insects have decimated nearly 200,000 hectares of cropland and over one million hectares of pasture.

Eco-friendly solutions to a locust outbreak

A locust outbreak has far-reaching implications, the most critical of which is food shortage. The use of non-biological pesticides, too, is a concern. The most effective control strategies have been aerial and ground spraying. These may have unintended consequences on the ecosystem. In some areas, pastoralists have complained that the chemicals used in spraying locusts are affecting their livestock.

Chemical spraying may be a viable option in desert habitats where hopper bands breed, but not so much in farmlands and areas that nurture wildlife. Non-biological pesticides are toxic. They may contaminate the vegetation and waterways, and affect other types of insects such as bees, as well as birds and reptiles.

Fortunately, there are bio safe pesticides that governments could use exclusively in the event of future attacks. Likewise, the development of indigenous natural pesticides – such as neem tree oil – for large-scale use, will be helpful in controlling locust infestations sustainably.

Ducks, too, make an excellent environmentally-friendly solution. This is in light of locusts serving as animal feed, on a smaller scale of infestation. Researchers in China found that while a chicken can eat about 70 locusts in a day, a duck can consume three times that number. And ducks are easier to manage because they like to move in groups.

locust plague on plant
Desert Locust swarm to feed
Photo credit:: FAO/Sven Torfinn. Copyright FAO

Locust harvesting is another sustainable solution. In Pakistan, the locust problem is being handled by turning the pests into chicken feed. Just like in East Africa, several regions in Pakistan and India have experienced the biggest locust swarms in more than 25 years. The pesticides used to control the situation have affected the water supply, soil and crops. This birthed the idea of a locust-harvesting project carried out in Pakistan’s Okara district in February.

Through the project, farmers earn money by trapping locusts which are then turned into high-protein chicken feed. Locusts only fly in daylight–at night, they stay almost motionless until sunrise. Farmers use nets to collect the locusts during the night, then sell them to animal feed mills. A farmer can earn up to $125 for a night’s work.

The project’s slogan is ‘Catch locusts. Earn money. Save crops’. It is an innovative pilot project that offers a sustainable solution to the locust problem. With an estimated 1.5 billion chickens being reared in Pakistan and numerous fish farms, a high protein locust meal is of great value.

Bio safe pesticides and locust harvesting are effective and sustainable ways of controlling locusts. This is important in supporting the ecosystem, and maintaining green living.

Ultimately, the origin of this seemingly sudden locust outbreak remains a key component in solving the environmental puzzle. Scientists warn that desert locust invasions will become more frequent and severe, and human activity may be to blame.

Climate change, a likely culprit in the desert locust crisis

Scientists say there is a link between global warming and the recent desert locust outbreak in East Africa. Rising sea surface temperatures have triggered a series of rare cyclones over the last 18 months. Extreme rainfall events, as witnessed in these storms, create the perfect breeding conditions for locusts.

The Empty Quarter is where it all began, on a vast desert in the southern Arabian Peninsula. Hurricane Mekunu passed over the region in May 2018, filling the spaces between the sand dunes with temporary lakes. Desert locusts breed and reproduce in this area. It is possible that hurricane Mekunu prompted the initial wave of desert locusts. Come October and another cyclone, Luban, rained out over the same region.

These two cyclones enabled three generations of excellent locust breeding conditions. Desert locusts lay their eggs at the adult stage, and under the right conditions, these can hatch to form a generation up to 20 times bigger than the first. In nine months the number of locusts in the Arabian Desert increased by about 8000-fold. Then the migration started.

By mid-2019, swarms crossed over the Red Sea into Somalia and Ethiopia. Intense rainfall later in the year allowed another bout of successful breeding. The insects multiplied, and by late December, the first swarms started their entry into Kenya.

mating locusts
Desert Locust mating
Photo credit:: FAO/Sven Torfinn. Copyright FAO

Climate change is warming oceans across the world. This could lead to more intense downpours. Warmer seas mean more cyclones. Research suggests extreme weather trends across the Indian Ocean may become more frequent in a warming world. In the Arabian Sea, global warming is already worsening fall cyclones and making them more severe.

Extreme weather patterns heighten the possibility of future outbreaks–of not just desert locusts, but other crop-devouring insects as well. Insect dynamics shift with climate change. The desert locust may be the most destructive yet.

Climate change is raising average temperatures, melting glaciers, causing sea levels to rise, altering wildlife populations and habitats, and yes, triggering extreme weather events. This has dire repercussions for life on the planet. The situation will not get better if humans continue to add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Simple steps to a cleaner atmosphere

The solution to climate change no doubt requires a multi-faceted approach, but we can be proactive by reducing our carbon footprint. It does not call for complex changes but simple lifestyle choices. For example, make your home more energy efficient. Unplug devices that you are not using, use energy-saving light bulbs and purchase energy-efficient gadgets. Consider solar and wind power. Renewable energy is better and cleaner than fossil fuels.

Plant a tree. Trees are the lungs of the earth. They are possibly humanity’s best short-term hope to reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Do support reforestation initiatives. Forests play a vital role in the planet’s air and water cycle.

Eat smart. Choose food items that are both locally grown and seasonal. Eat organic produce. Balance taste, nutrition and ecological impact.

Buy green. The items we purchase have a carbon footprint, either in the way they are produced or transported. Buy less stuff. Cutting back on consumption reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Think green when you make a purchase.

Commute green. The transport sector is a key source of greenhouse gas emissions. Make your commute eco-friendly. Cut down on transport fuel needs. Move closer to work, and walk or ride a bicycle to work. Use public transport. Telecommute or work from home if possible. Consider a hybrid make when purchasing your next vehicle.

locusts in sky
Desert Locust swarm
Photo credit:: FAO/Sven Torfinn. Copyright FAO

These are a few lifestyle improvements that an individual can make for a greener, cleaner atmosphere. Green living could help clean up substantial amounts of carbon dioxide and ease the effects of global warming. We have the solutions to settle climate change; the global conversation must keep moving forward.

The locust outbreak having been brought under control in East Africa, can the region now breathe a sigh relief? Not really. UN-FAO advises a wait and see attitude. The region is still at risk of another attack. There is the threat of a new upsurge later in the year, with new swarms flying in from the Middle East. Just in time for the October/November rains, and shall we say, conducive breeding conditions to spawn a fresh generation of desert locusts. Surveillance continues.

For more information:

10 solutions for climate change:

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/10-solutions-for-climate-change/

A plague of locusts has descended on East Africa. Climate change may be to blame: https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/environment-and-conservation/2020/02/plague-of-locusts-has-descended-east-africa-climate-change-may

Pak finds solution for locust threat, turns it into chicken feed: https://www.thequint.com/news/world/pak-finds-solution-for-locust-threat-turns-it-into-chicken-feed

Global warming solutions explained:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/global-warming-solutions/

How do you fight a locust invasion amid coronavirus?:

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-52394888

Hundreds of billions of locusts swarm in East Africa:

https://www.bbc.com/news/in-pictures-51618188

Kenya wins fight against locusts: https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/business/article/2001381236/kenya-wins-fight-against-locusts

Locust plague: Deadly invasion and COVID-19 threatens famine of biblical proportions: https://www.express.co.uk/news/science/1279699/locust-plague-coronavirus-africa-biblical-famine-covid-19-bible-plague

Locust swarms ravaging East Africa are the size of cities: https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-africa-locusts/

Safer, more effective ways to control locusts:

https://nation.africa/kenya/blogs-opinion/opinion/safer-more-effective-ways-to-control-locusts-249442

Second wave of locusts in East Africa said to be 20 times worse: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/apr/13/second-wave-of-locusts-in-east-africa-said-to-be-20-times-worse

Ten simple ways to act on climate change:

https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20181102-what-can-i-do-about-climate-change

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