Lo­custs cloud the skies and outlook of a hun­gry East Africa


From a dis­tance, it looks like bil­low­ing smoke. But as it nears, the swarm of lo­custs comes into fo­cus: bil­lions upon bil­lions of them, thick as a bliz­zard, un­count­able as rain­drops, a jaw-drop­ping pro­ces­sion of the rav­en­ous crea­tures of bi­b­li­cal in­famy, flail­ing and flap­ping in the air, block­ing out the sun like a bad omen.

The pests, known and feared by the world’s most an­cient civ­i­liza­tions, are in­vad­ing south­ern Ethiopia and neigh­bor­ing parts of Kenya in num­bers not seen in gen­er­a­tions.

They breed freely in ar­eas out­side gov­ern­ment con­trol in con­flict-rav­aged Ye­men and So­ma­lia, and they reach their vo­ra­cious ado­les­cence while mi­grat­ing west to­ward the feed­ing grounds of lusher in­land Africa. Un­sea­son­able rain, linked to a cli­mate-change-driven event in the In­dian Ocean, has turned the re­gion into a buf­fet for lo­custs.

A ma­jor hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis looms. Lo­custs can dec­i­mate crop­land, crip­pling

farms and leav­ing mar­kets empty and live­stock with noth­ing to eat. Around 19 mil­lion people al­ready face high lev­els of food in­se­cu­rity in East Africa.

“Our only op­tion is to try to kill them all,” said Bayeh Mu­latu, a pest con­trol ex­pert at the United Na­tions’ Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion (FAO) in Ad­dis Ababa, Ethiopia’s cap­i­tal. A sim­i­lar surge of lo­custs in north­ern Ethiopia in 1954 de­voured nearly 100 per­cent of green-leaf plant cover and, along with a drought, caused a year-long famine, Bayeh said.

De­spite tech­no­log­i­cal im­prove­ments, the prospects of con­trol re­main slim. Hun­dreds of swarms have hatched in the sandy soil of Ye­men and So­ma­lia’s coastal plains, where lit­tle to noth­ing is be­ing done to con­trol them. Ethiopia has only three op­er­a­tional planes to spray in­sec­ti­cides, and Kenya has five. Mean­while, the big­gest of the swarms are get­ting closer ev­ery day to Ethiopia’s bread­bas­ket in the Great Rift Val­ley, where smaller swarms are al­ready strip­ping some farms.

“There is no such thing as con­tain­ment of lo­custs,” Bayeh said. “There is only con­trol. Only killing.”

The United Na­tions says $76 mil­lion is needed im­me­di­ately to in­crease spray­ing ca­pac­ity.

The fund­ing is “re­quired by, ac­tu­ally, now,” said FAO chief Qu Dongyu at a re­cent news brief­ing. “If af­ter April the money has come, it’s some­how use­less.”

Ethiopia is likely to be hit the hard­est by the in­fes­ta­tion, which be­gan last June but is only now reach­ing epic pro­por­tions. While gi­ant swarms have been re­ported in Kenya, and smaller ones in Dji­bouti, Eritrea, Su­dan and So­ma­lia, Ethiopia is the only coun­try among them where ado­les­cent or “gre­gar­i­ous” swarms are ex­pected to de­scend en masse on crop­land. The lo­custs moved into Uganda this week and may move into South Su­dan, the United Na­tions warned.

“Our re­sources are not enough,” said Zeb­de­wos Salato, di­rec­tor of plant pro­tec­tion at Ethiopia’s Agri­cul­ture Min­istry. “Soon we may see the lo­custs pass­ing over the whole coun­try, into the ma­jor crop-grow­ing re­gions.”

Years of drought have led to wide­spread de­pen­dence on food aid in the re­gion, and sud­den rains have sparked deadly flash floods. In a cruel twist, an un­usual, pro­longed rainy sea­son has al­le­vi­ated some of the pres­sure on food sup­plies but also pro­vided the ideal con­di­tions for lo­cust re­pro­duc­tion.

Farm­ers in south­ern Ethiopia were lucky that the big­gest swarms didn’t show up here un­til Jan­uary, af­ter the har­vest sea­son. But now new seeds of corn and wheat are in the ground — as are hun­dreds of bil­lions of lo­cust eggs.

The weather anom­aly is caused by an El Niño-like event in the In­dian Ocean that once oc­curred about ev­ery 10 years but that stud­ies show has be­come more fre­quent, as well as more in­tense.

The events lead to heavy rain­fall in East Africa — which saw eight cy­clones off its coast last year — and dry con­di­tions in Aus­tralia, ex­ac­er­bat­ing bush fires there.

Rainy con­di­tions are ex­pected un­til at least June, set­ting the stage for those swarms-in-wait­ing to de­vour the com­ing har­vest.

“In our cul­ture, we cel­e­brate the lo­custs be­cause their ar­rival means rain,” said Haphi Elema, a farmer and rancher who lives on an iso­lated homestead in south­ern Ethiopia and be­longs to the Bo­rana com­mu­nity. “But we know that if they stay longer than the rain, then they will eat ev­ery­thing and we will starve.”

Elema’s fam­ily re­lies on the sur­round­ing shrub land for food for their cat­tle and goats. With con­tin­ued rain, the leaves and grass re­gen­er­ate quickly, but ev­ery day is still a fight against the ap­petite of the swarms.

“First we used my gun to scare them with the sound," he said. "Then we made big fires. Now we spend all morn­ing chas­ing them off the plants, but they are too many.”

The Ethiopian gov­ern­ment has en­cour­aged what it calls “cul­tural meth­ods” of fend­ing off the swarms, like the ones Elema de­scribed. They also have po­si­tioned scouts on the top of prom­i­nent hills to keep a look­out for swarms and send text mes­sages to regional of­fi­cials about their move­ments. But spray­ing malathion, an in­sec­ti­cide, is the only way to kill en­tire swarms.

The pi­lots can ef­fec­tively spray swarms only when the in­sects are on the ground. Be­cause lo­custs are cold­blooded, they have lit­tle en­ergy be­fore the day warms up, and the best spray­ing time is early in the morn­ing. Un­for­tu­nately, fre­quent early-morn­ing rain of­ten pre­vents spray­ing mis­sions, and pi­lots reach the swarms when they are al­ready in the air, spread out over miles and miles.

“They ride up on ther­mals [up­drafts] as high as 3,000 feet,” said Andrew Van Zyl, a South African who flies a spray­ing plane called an Air Trac­tor for a pri­vate com­pany con­tracted by the Ethiopian gov­ern­ment. “The swarms are thick enough that they block the plane’s air in­take. The con­di­tions are ac­tu­ally quite dan­ger­ous.”

On a re­cent day, Van Zyl re­turned from a spray­ing mis­sion and his plane was cov­ered with greasy lo­cust guts, so much so that he could barely see through his wind­shield.

The Ethiopian gov­ern­ment and the United Na­tions are ag­i­tat­ing for more money to stave off the night­mare sce­nario: a plague that sweeps across the heart­land, leav­ing dec­i­mated fields in its wake. With the aid of wind, lo­custs can travel 100 miles in a day. That means they are al­ready well within strik­ing dis­tance of vast amounts of farm­land that feed Africa’s sec­ond most-pop­u­lous coun­try.

“We can­not sit idle. If we did, the whole re­gion would be in­fested. It would be­come a huge, huge cri­sis,” said Bayeh, the FAO ex­pert. “The con­di­tions are per­fect for them; 2020 — it is the year of the lo­cust.”


A child runs and makes noise to scare lo­custs from land in south­ern Ethiopia. Con­flict and cli­mate change have helped this year’s swarms to grow to a size not seen in gen­er­a­tions.


A child walks among lo­custs in Ethiopia, the coun­try likely to be hit hard­est by the in­fes­ta­tion. For a video, go to wapo.st/lo­custs.

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