Africa’s Huge Locust Swarms Are Growing at the Worst Time

This lapse in detection unfolded despite the best efforts of the FAO, which coordinates a complex network of data collectors to detect the locusts early, before they have time to go gregarious and swarm. They work with two dozen frontline countries between East Africa and India, with people patrolling in trucks, looking for the pests. They marry this on-the-ground information with satellite data that shows vegetation forming—an indication that hungry locusts could well follow.

 

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Unfortunately, though, the locust boom in 2018 unfolded in Oman’s remote deserts, so there was no one around to raise the alarm. “We can help in creating better models, better forecasts,” says Piou. “But if there’s nobody on the ground, there’s no humans, then it’s not enough. We cannot replace humans on the ground with satellites.”

The terrifying reality is that if you don’t stop a locust swarm early, there’s very little you can do to stop its spread. These insects do not respect borders, and they do not respect crops. Once the swarm arrives, the best officials can do is deploy pesticides to attenuate the crop destruction. But that, too, requires humans, and specially trained crews at that—you can’t just hand a farmer a barrel of pesticide and hope no one gets sick.

Luckily, countries currently invaded by locusts, like Kenya and Ethiopia, already have plenty of experts who know how to run a spraying operation. The concern is for what will happen if the swarms spread into countries like South Sudan and Uganda, which haven’t seen major outbreaks for decades. “They don’t have any national locust program in their country within the ministry of agriculture,” says Cressman, of the FAO. “They have no physical setup, but they also have no expertise, no trained staff in the various aspects of controlling locust.” With travel restrictions in place, experts can’t get there to train people up. And even if they could get there, social distancing means you can’t fill up rooms for lessons on locust control.

The good news in all this is that while shipments of pesticides and spraying equipment to Africa may have slowed as supply chains slow in general, this particular supply chain is distributed across the globe. “It’s coming from the four corners of the planet,” says Cressman. “So we’re not just relying on one region to supply us, which could be a bit risky, because if that region really shuts down, you wouldn’t be able to sustain the supply.”

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Still, the timing of it all is catastrophic: locusts in the age of the coronavirus, with the start of the harvest season coming in late June and early July. “And unfortunately that’s exactly the same time when the next generation of swarms will be forming,” says Cressman.

With nations elsewhere wrapped up in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, the growing locust threat may not get the attention, and humanitarian aid, it needs. A locust outbreak, Cressman says, is a lot like a wildfire: Put it out early, and you’re good. Delay, and the swarm will spread and spread until it runs out of fuel—the food that subsistence farmers across Africa rely on to survive.

The good news is that the swarms haven’t yet spread through North and West Africa. The bad news is that the magnitude of this outbreak rivals that of the devastating swarms that hit the continent 75 years ago. Beginning in 1948, locusts multiplied out of control in Africa, and didn’t stop until 1963. “So if we don’t stop it now,” Piou says, “we are going to have swarms rolling from country to country.”

To keep that from happening, Piou is working with countries in the region to predict where the locusts might land next. “What we are trying to do with them is to be ready as soon as the swarms arrive,” he says, “to have a quick answer and not let them reproduce again and exponentially grow again.”

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