In the heat of the battle to contain the coronavirus pandemic, locusts, the virulent pests that have been prowling on pastureland and farms for the past five months, have largely been forgotten.
And while their march in Kenya has not been as apocalyptic as earlier prophesied, they have laid waste to isolated farms and pasture, and will surely dent the country’s food security, a variety of forecasts show.
We set out last week to the epicentre of the present infestation in the north to see just what is going on.
The questions on our minds were: is the country winning the war? How are communities coping? Just who are behind this war? What’s their day like? To what extent has Covid-19 affected the control of locusts?
After driving through the agricultural hubs of Central, Embu and Meru, where sporadic attacks by the pests took place between February and March, we came to Isiolo.
The control base, housed at Isiolo Agricultural Training College, covers the county as well as Meru, Samburu and Laikipia counties.
“The ongoing control operation has drastically reduced locusts’ spreading and multiplication,” says Col (Rtd) Julius Ngera, who oversees the National Locust Control Centre.
He says the ongoing rains and the change in wind direction, currently flowing from south to north, have pushed locusts from the Nyiro range complex towards the Suguta Valley in Samburu, South Horr and North Horr sub-counties of Marsabit, and Loima, Lokichar and Napetao wards in Turkana.
“The control team is now focused on identification, mapping and close monitoring of breeding areas to enable timely control of the second-generation swarms,” Mr Ngera says.
Besides Isiolo, the centre has five other command posts: Masinga, Marsabit, Wajir, Garissa and Turkana.
Desert locusts entered the country on December 28 through Mandera, and at their peak in March had spread to 27 counties.
Mr Ambrose Ngetich, who manages the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) control operations in the regions, worries that if adult locusts are not spotted in time, they can lay eggs and take the operations back to square one.
“On the ground we have 300 youth who are trained to track and give us coordinates. They use smartphones. FAO has recently developed the eLocust3M app,” he said.
Spraying is done between 9am and 9.30am because flying in the day when swarms are moving is dangerous as they can choke the engine of the aircraft.
The pests, which move by mind-boggling formations aided by pheromones to communicate, are most active between 11am and 6pm.
In the pristine grounds of the Lewa Conservancy, where healthy herds of buffaloes and elephants were nibbling away at vegetation perhaps unaware of the war around them, we came to the airstrip.
Here, two aircraft were preparing to fly off to Suguta Mar Mar in Samburu where swarms had been sighted.
Lewa is also the command base from where information on location and sizes of swarms are relayed to FAO headquarters in Rome and the Agriculture ministry headquarters at Kilimo House in Nairobi.
“We do between 30 minutes and one hour spray time a day. With two aircraft, we can do 1,000 hectares a day flying at 10 metres from the ground,” explains Rob Taylor, a South African pilot with Orsmond Aviation, who has done agricultural spraying since 1984.
But even as he clutches at the levers of the most powerful weapon against the desert locust, Mr Taylor is only too aware that one can’t completely decimate it.
“The issue is to reduce the number, which if left unchecked can be catastrophic,” he says.
Besides spray aircraft, motorised sprayers and hand-held ones have also been deployed to manage swarms of smaller numbers.
The chemical control of the pests is a delicate balancing act and the effects of the spray operations on the pasture and animals have been a matter of contention for months.
While the government insists the effects on biodiversity are minimal, some herders complain about bloating in goats.
“Given the circumstances we were in, and weighing between the danger of leaving locusts to roam and the little damage caused, the use of chemicals would not have been avoided,” Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya explained in an interview.
Mr Stanley Kipkoech, the assistant director for pest control in the Ministry of Agriculture, says field officers use local systems, like the Nyumba Kumi initiative, to issue notices to residents before spraying.
He displayed helmets, masks, heavy-duty gloves, goggles, gumboots and fought off reports that some ground officials spray in slippers.
Additional report by Waweru Wairimu