“The plagues are part of nature” but the locust epidemic in Africa is far from over

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NAIROBI, KENYA – The crunch of young locusts comes at almost every stage. The worst voracious insect epidemic in Kenya in 70 years is far from over, and their new generation is now finding its wings for good flight. The livelihoods of millions of already vulnerable people in East Africa are at stake, and people like Boris Polo are working to limit the damage. The logistician of a helicopter company is under contract with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, helping to find and mark locust swarms for the targeted pesticide spraying that was called the only effective control.

“It sounds bleak because there is no way you could kill them all because the areas are so large,” he told the Associated Press on the ground in northwest Kenya on Thursday. “But the key to the project is to minimize” the damage, and the work certainly has an effect, he said.

For months, much of East Africa has been caught in an endless cycle in sight as millions of locusts have grown into billions, munching on the leaves of the two crops and the brush that sustains so important livestock for many families.

“The risk of significant impact on crops and rangelands is very high,” the IGAD Regional Center for Climate Forecast and Applications said in a statement on Wednesday.

For the moment, the young yellow locusts cover the ground and the trunks of trees like a carpet which contracts, sometimes drifting on the dust like giant grains of sand.

Over the past week and a half, Polo said, locusts have turned from larvae into more mature flying swarms which, over the next two weeks, will take the form of long-distance flight, creating large swarms that can largely erase the horizon. A single swarm can be the size of a large city.

Once in flight, locusts will be more difficult to contain, flying up to 200 kilometers (124 miles) a day.

“They follow the prevailing winds,” said Polo. “Then they will start entering Sudan, Ethiopia and eventually head for Somalia. By then the winds will have changed and whatever remains of the swarms will return to Kenya.

“By February, March next year, they will lay eggs again in Kenya,” he said. The next generation could be up to 20 times the size of the previous one.

The problem is that only Kenya and Ethiopia do the job of controlling pesticides. “In places like Sudan, South Sudan, especially Somalia, there is no way, people cannot go there because of the problems these countries have,” said Polo.

“The limited financial capacity of some of the affected countries and the deadlock caused by the coronavirus pandemic have further hampered control efforts. correspondence published in the journal Nature Climate Change this month.

Given that “more extreme climate variability could increase the likelihood of outbreaks and pest spreads”, they called for a better early warning system for the region and urged developing countries to help.

Earlier this year, the World Bank announced a $ 500 million program for countries affected by historic Desert Locust swarms, while the FAO has requested more than $ 300 million.

The spraying of pesticides in Kenya “has definitely paid off,” said Kenneth Mwangi, satellite information analyst at ICPAC. There has been a sharp decline since the first wave of locusts, and a few counties that had seen “huge and multiple swarms” are now reporting little or no. The areas experiencing the second wave are notably the furthest from the control centers, he said.

This has been more difficult in Ethiopia, where despite the spraying, new swarms of locusts have arrived from Somalia and parts of northern Kenya. “Unfortunately, the two waves found crops in the fields,” said Mwangi.

But without the control work, said Polo, the already dramatic swarms would be even more massive.

He and his colleagues target locusts early in the morning before leaving their resting places and starting to fly in the heat of the day. Work has continued since March.

“These plagues are part of nature,” said Polo. “They rejuvenate the areas. They don’t kill plants, they eat the leaves. Everything grows back.

“They don’t harm the natural world, they harm what humans need in the natural world. ”

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Anna reported from Johannesburg.

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