‘Total onslaught’ of locusts looms
Teams race to spray insects as ‘biblical’ swarms destroy crops
● Thousands of hectares of grazing and farmland in the drought-stricken provinces of the Northern Cape and Eastern Cape are in the direct path of swarming brown locusts.
The swarms of millions, which began late last year, have intensified across the Karoo and Kalahari, and the insects are devouring fields of lucerne desperately needed by farmers to feed their animals through the winter.
“What we are seeing is terrifying,” said sheep farmer Stefan Erasmus, from Middelburg in the Eastern Cape, who watched as a swarm stripped a 6ha lucerne field in 30 minutes.
“One minute the lucerne was standing 600mm high. The next it was less than 50mm. We worked out that there were between 2,000 and 4,000 locusts in a square metre.”
He said farmers’ big concern now is that they have not had close to what their normal seasonal rainfall should be. The swarms are exacerbating the effects of the drought — and “we have no idea when the swarms will end or when rains will come”.
With the locusts travelling up to 100km a day, laying eggs across the areas they move through, crop protection experts say future swarms later this year could be “of biblical proportion”.
Gerhard Verdoorn, operations manager of Croplife SA, an industry association for plant protection companies, said the swarms have been larger than usual — but his real fear is for what is coming.
“A lot of spraying is happening with the assistance of government agricultural officials, which is helping a lot, but the problem is that as the locusts move, they lay eggs.
“Spraying is incredibly difficult, especially given the mountainous and remote terrain the locusts are in. It has to be done at night when they sleep. They also need to be sprayed while they are still hoppers and before they have a chance to fly or lay eggs.
“Our fear is that while the cold of the approaching winter will reduce these swarms, when the next summer season starts the millions of eggs that have already been laid will create far bigger swarms, potentially of biblical proportions.”
He said that if predictions are correct, the locusts, which are closing in on SA’s main maize-growing areas in the Free State, will wipe out vast portions of the country’s maize crop for next year. “This is a very real threat.” Mammoth swarms in Namibia are also moving into Botswana. “It is a race against time. If these swarms are not dealt with urgently, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa will be under immense pressure in the coming summer.” Agriculture department spokesperson Reggie Ngcobo said locust control contractors equipped with insecticide, spray pumps and protective clothing have been appointed, assisted by aerial spraying.
“The swarms pose a serious threat to future food supplies in terms of crops which are either to be planted or harvested during winter if they cannot be controlled,” he said.
Eben du Plessis, Agri Eastern Cape communications portfolio chair, who said he had 7ha of teff eaten in an hour, said the situation is dire. “March was a total onslaught. There were just too many swarms. A recent swarm near me was 8km wide.
“The swarms are coming from the Northern Cape. They have already hit Middelburg, Cradock, Steynsburg, Graaff-Reinet, Aberdeen, Nieu Bethesda, Jansenville and Pearston.
“Farmers are spraying up to 50km of farmland a night. They use bakkies on the flat terrain, but in the mountainous areas they have to walk.
“Our big worry is the 600km of farmland along the Fish River scheme. Vegetable, citrus and lucerne farms are in danger.”
Agri Northern Cape vice-president Willem Symington said assistance from the government has helped. “We are still not out of the woods, though. A lot has to be done or else the problem will become worse.”
Symington said hundreds of locust officers and spray teams have been deployed across the province, with 98 newly trained locust officers to be deployed soon.
“If the locusts, which are heading east, are not dealt with, the swarms will continue to grow. When they reach the Free State, crops like maize will be devastated.”
Agri SA’s risk and disaster manager, Andrea Campher, said the swarms, some reported to be 20km wide, are alarming. “For many farmers it is a race against time to stop the locusts from reaching the cultivated crops.
“It is touch and go, but the systems in place, along with the government’s help, mean that for now there is no food security threat.”