Why Are There So Many Locusts in East Africa?

By Helen Lin
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Photo Courtesy: m.shattock/Flickr

As the majority of the world continues to deal with COVID-19, people in East Africa are facing challenges on multiple fronts. Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia are currently experiencing overwhelming swarms of locusts, and crops that people need for food are being devoured before they can even be harvested. It also seems likely that these swarms will soon migrate to nearby nations as well.

It's difficult to say just how much damage these massive clouds of insects will cause, but by studying the conditions that allowed the locust population to boom, scientists hope to predict the scope of the damage in advance and come up with plans to mitigate it. However, it's difficult to implement a full-scale plan to counter these famine-bringing insects even in the best of times, let alone during a pandemic.

What Contributed to These Epic Swarms?

The first major question to ask about this infestation is what caused it. Locust swarms have been a reoccurring issue for farmers in Africa and at times even Asia and Europe since recorded history began. In fact, historians from Rome, Ancient Greece and elsewhere have commented about the intermittent scourge of locusts over the centuries.

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Photo Courtesy: Laika ac/Flickr

The locust most associated with swarms and devastation is the desert locust, Schistocerca gregaria. This particular species is uniquely dangerous thanks to its size, eating habits and unpredictability. A single square kilometer swarm is capable of consuming several hundred pounds of food in a single day. The preferred target of these insects is growing crops, which is why desert locusts are a significant threat to small rural communities: they can’t harvest their food early to prevent the locusts from eating it, and that means a village’s entire food supply can disappear quickly.

There is very little regularity to locust swarms, although ecologists have theories about why there are usually several years between swarms. The most likely answer is the amount of moisture in the sandy desert soil, which is where locusts lay their eggs. Normally, the soil is too dry for more than a few locust eggs to hatch, meaning that they don’t have the numbers to form a swarm.

However, the last few years have been exceptionally wet for East Africa. After the area survived several cyclones, flooding and wind, the once dry soil has been consistently damp, and that means more and more locusts have hatched and survived until adulthood. With so many locusts around, swarms are inevitable.

A contributing factor to the increase in cyclone size, strength and frequency are warming ocean temperatures, particularly in the Indian Ocean, which much of East Africa is next to. As temperatures continue to rise across the globe, cyclones and the resulting locusts from damp soil may become more and more common in East Africa until huge swarms like this one become a regular occurence. Hopefully, lawmakers and humanitarians will be able to band together and create a plan of action to tackle this emerging crisis.

What Needs to Be Done to Save Millions From Starvation?

Humanitarian aid is perhaps the best way for millions of African people to avoid starvation during the summer and autumn of 2020. In March, the USAID foundation announced that they would spend millions of dollars to assist East Africans in preparing against the swarms. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is also attempting to collect $76 million in donations to contribute to the effort.

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Photo Courtesy: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/Flickr

Because many people around the world who would normally be in a place to donate have faced financial losses because of the pandemic, it may take a decent amount of time to reach that goal. Unfortunately, the longer it takes to quell the locust swarms, the more harm they will do, and there’s little that can be done to counter the rain that speeds their growth.

The pandemic is also causing more localized problems in solving the locust problem. After all, it's difficult to execute a massive spraying operation without pilots, yet when everyone is self-isolating, it can be difficult to find pilots both at home and abroad that are willing or able to do the needed work. Regional conflicts, such as the civil war in Yemen, also complicate the ability of governments to take action.

Could Locusts Migrate to Other Parts of the World?

Locusts generally don’t move through rainforests or high mountains, and they don’t range far into Europe. However, they have spread as far as the Caribbean, India and even Russia. While far-ranging locusts tend to die off eventually, leaving only their original range in East Africa, they can do massive damage before that happens. This particular swarm has already reached 16 countries, including India, Iran and Jordan. Further spread seems unavoidable at this point, and as the summer rainy season approaches, it's possible that these pests may spread across much of North and West Africa.

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Photo Courtesy: Bernard DUPONT/Wikimedia Commons

Still, the exact range of their potential destruction depends on what course of action the leaders of these countries and others around the world decide to pursue. Based on the destruction already caused by these insatiable insects, it’s likely that more than 25 million people in Africa will struggle to find enough food during 2020 if nothing changes.

While prevention is the most effective means of controlling locust swarms, the time for them has largely passed. To truly fight back against the oncoming pestilence, restrictions will need to be lifted to allow pilots and pest control technicians to work around the clock. Of course, this won't happen until conditions improve or a COVID-19 vaccine or cure is implemented.

This is bad news, and not only for East Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia. Locusts have been known to fly across entire oceans to reach new sources of vegetation. While colder climates are less likely to be affected, there’s no telling how far the locust swarms will reach before they’re contained.

Fortunately, new means of dealing with locusts are being researched. One example is a biopesticide that turns the spores of a fungus that naturally targets locusts into a powerful pesticide that kills locusts and grasshoppers while leaving other insects — and people — alone. No matter what happens, however, because of rising global temperatures, humanity will need to put serious thought into containing locusts as their swarms become more and more frequent.