FAO warns danger posed by desert locust swarms is far from over

Thursday April 29 2021

Desert locusts destroy maize in Meru, Kenya. Experts term them a biological time bomb and professional survivalists attuned to changes in climate. PHOTO | AFP


The desert locust swarms are on the decline in the East African region largely due to large-scale control operations mounted by governments and supported by FAO over the past 14 months and poor rains.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said the control measures reduced the risk of desert locusts and averted a food crisis in the region.

“The desert locust crisis is far from over. Now, countries have systems in place, teams in place, and are maintaining a state of full readiness,” said Cyril Ferrand, Manager of FAO's Desert Locust response in East Africa.

“But I would also point to what these operations have achieved in terms of preventing human suffering. Locust control operations prevented the loss of four million tonnes of cereal and 790 million litres of milk production, protecting the food security of 34.2 million people and avoiding $1.54 billion in cereal and milk losses.”

Compared to the mega swarms of 2020, the swarms now being treated by government teams run from a few hectares to 30 hectares and contain far fewer insects.

“Remember last year there was one swarm in northern Kenya that was around 2,000 square kilometres in size. Now, daily missions in Kenya are down to one or two a day at the very most, compared with 20 at the peak of the upsurge last year,” said Ferrand.


Professional survivalists

FAO’s Senior Desert Locust Forecaster Keith Cressman and Kenya’s Agriculture Principal Secretary Prof Hamadi Boga said only a few immature swarms still remain in Samburu in Northern Kenya and northern Tanzania.

“Swarms in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia remain immature and continue to become smaller. Without rainfall, they will not mature and breed,” said Cressman.

“The current rainy season that is expected to be drier than normal should contribute to a further decline in locusts.”

For the first time in many months since the Desert Locusts invaded Kenya, there has been less talk about the deadly upsurge.

“The desert locusts have been under control for most of the time. We have two swarms in Samburu based on our latest report, which are being tracked. Their population has considerably gone down. Some managed to escape into northern Tanzania,” said Prof Boga, Principal Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Cooperatives.

Tanzania President Samia Suluhu has also joined the war against the desert insects by directing her Agriculture minister Adolf Mkenda to implement control measures.

“In Agriculture, we have been informed on how to control locusts. They are there with our neighbours. When a farmer plants his crops, he needs to harvest. So we must make sure that he reaps what he sows. And that he doesn’t have to encounter locusts,” said President Samia.

But while the control measures had minimised the risks posed by the locusts, the crisis is far from over.

“Given the right conditions, desert locusts are a biological time bomb. They are professional survivalists and know how to manage weather conditions in a changing climate. It would be a fatal error to scale down the response now,” said Cressman.

“We have been surprised twice during this upsurge by atypical weather that dumped unusually heavy amounts of precipitation out of season and sparked an explosion of reproduction.”

He said surveillance missions should be ramped up, to lock in gains and detect any upticks in locust activity, if the weather does have any more tricks up its sleeve.

“The maximum number of ground teams must be out actively searching for locust infestations. All control teams must remain ready to react. If current trends continue, operations might be able to come off "high alert status" perhaps after the summer.”