It is difficult to imagine what a swarm of 100 billion to 200 billion flying locusts even looks like. It sounds reminiscent of something only described in ancient religious or mythological texts. In the Book of Exodus, a locust invasion is described as covering “the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left: and there remained not any green thing in the trees, or in the herbs of the field, through all the land.” Unfortunately, a crisis of this scale is being faced at the moment for communities and wildlife across the Horn of Africa.
Swarms of the desert locust have recently spread across Kenya with an invasion worse than anything the country has seen in over 70 years. A single small swarm, of about one square kilometer in size, can devour the same amount of food as 35,000 people can in one day. Now keep in mind that these swarms can stretch up to 460 square miles—about 1.5 times the size of New York City. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) stated this week that the insects pose a severe humanitarian risk, as nearly 10 million people in the affected area already face food shortages because of recent floods and droughts.
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WCN first learned of the locust invasion from our Partners on the ground in northern Kenya, Ewaso Lions and Grevy’s Zebra Trust (GZT). Local conservationists have been sounding the alarm as loud as they can, quite literally. Upon recently learning of a swarm of young locusts moving in on Grevy’s zebra habitat, the GZT team immediately assembled, armed with cooking pots, wash buckets, and whistles, anything that would make loud enough noises to chase away the invaders. Within approximately an hour, the GZT team managed to scare off the locusts, protecting local vegetation for wildlife, for now.
In addition to creating a humanitarian crisis, conservationists fear this locust invasion will have severe consequences for wildlife as well. Many large herbivores across Kenya, including Grevy’s zebra, rely on this vegetation for their own survival. If their habitats are left barren by these invaders, the ecosystem function could collapse. Swarms of this scale are already doing major damage, but the fear is that the worst is yet to come in approaching months.
Normally, locusts are no more harmful than other grasshoppers. What separates them from other species is their ability to transition from a solitary state into a social, or swarming state. This transformation usually occurs after a long period of dry spells followed by heavy rains, which has been the recent case in the Horn of Africa. Currently, in Somalia, a population of hopping young desert locusts, though seemingly harmless now, are on the verge of developing wings in a few weeks to set off in a voracious state for neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia.
In response, local organizations have been using pesticides on the locusts while they’re still in a localized, nymph state, but little can be done once they begin swarming. Using pesticides also only serves as a temporary, emergency response to what some scientists believe is a climate change induced situation. As our oceans and atmosphere warm, we are beginning to witness worsening droughts and failing rains across East Africa, as well as alterations to ocean circulation patterns that have stabilized weather patterns for centuries. These changing weather patterns are creating the conditions for the unprecedented scale of locust swarms.
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Ewaso Lions and Grevy’s Zebra Trust are currently determining the best next steps to mitigate the impact of these insects on local communities and wildlife. Belinda Low Mackey, GZT’s Executive Director commented on the situation – “It’s disturbing to think that despite the good rains and support given to communities to plan for grazing, the survival rate of the young zebra may be affected by the destruction caused by the swarms.” The FAO has called on the international community to support up to $75 million+ for pest control operations and to protect farmers and pastoralists affected by locusts. We hope that an influx of global support will be able to halt these locusts in their tracks.