Locusts: “A swarm of just more than a third of a square mile can eat the same amount of food in one day as 35,000 people”
The UN has warned that the devastation at the beginning of the year that occurred in more than 20 counties in Kenya – where over 70,000 hectares of vegetation were destroyed by the pest – could be multiplied by 20 times by a second wave brought about by recent rains which favor locust proliferation.
In Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, widespread breeding is in progress and new swarms have formed and are starting to lay eggs in a new cycle of reproduction, representing an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods. Desert Locust are voracious eaters that target both food crops as well as the vegetation and pastures that pastoralists in East Africa depend on.
Right now, all of the swarms are impacting areas north of Laikipia.
Virginia Wahome, Director of Cooperation on Peace and Development, is leading the regional pest control campaign in Laikipia County.
“Laikipia recorded the first desert locust sightings in January, inside Il Ng’wesi Conservancy, and we have remained on the ground to track them since,” Ms. Wahome says.
Intensified aerial and ground surveil-lance have since traced the pests to Lolldaiga, Ole Naishu, Nanyuki, and Ngobit. In the west the desert locusts have invaded Mwenje, Njorua, Kinamba, Mahianyu, Oljabet, Rumuruti, Mutara, Kifuko among other areas.
The pest control campaign has bought together multi-agency teams from the FAO, national and county governments, the military, the National Youth Service, development partners and the private sector, including our Laikipia Farmers Association.
The surveillance and spraying operations for the region are organized from the Isiolo coordination center. So far, 240 thousand hectares of land in the affected countries have been treated with insecticides, and 740 personnel trained on deserts locust control since January 2020.
Ground monitoring teams conduct extensive surveys of terrain, collecting information on the state of the habitat and locust populations. This information is used for planning anti-locust controls and making decisions regarding preventive treatments. Reports are regularly filed using WhatsApp groups and GPS coordinates.
Threat to food security
Already 3.1 million Kenyans are projected to be highly food insecure between August and October 2020. Agro-pastoral communities in the North are particularly vulnerable and are just recovering from a long drought, followed by floods. So far, approximately 70,000 hectares of land have already been infested.
Role of climate change
Climate change has played a big role in creating a conducive environment for Desert Locusts to thrive. Last year, Kenya experienced a lot of rain, with a number of flooding in the last quarter of the year. This made the sandy soil in Arid and Semi-arid (ASAL) areas moist, which is perfect condition for the female migratory pests to lay their eggs.
In the last three years, there was an increase in the frequency of cyclones in the Indian Ocean that played a role in breeding this upsurge. In 2018, two cyclones dumped heavy rain on the uninhabited portion of the Arabian Peninsula known as “The Empty Quarter,” an area where locusts can breed and reproduce freely.
Use of pesticides
These migratory pests use wind to move and are able to cover up to 150 kilometers in one day. Aerial and ground spraying is ongoing, with plans to set up and equip four additional Desert Locust control centers.
Presently, the primary method of controlling Desert Locust swarms and hopper bands is with the use of organophosphate chemicals applied in small concentrated doses (referred to as ultra-low volume (ULV) formulation) by vehicle-mounted and aerial sprayers, and to a lesser extent, by knapsack and hand-held sprayers.
Organophosphate insecticides (such as diazinon) are one type of pesticide that works by damaging an enzyme in the body called acetylcholinesterase. This enzyme is critical for controlling nerve signals in the body. The damage to this enzyme kills pests and may cause unwanted side effects in exposed humans, livestock, and wildlife.
For more about Laikipia’s locust control efforts please see the County’s bulletin from May 2020.
Also see here about the locust hunters in Kenya