Samburu men try to fend off a swarm of desert locusts in Lemasulani village in Kenya. Picture: REUTERS/NJERI MWANGI
Samburu men try to fend off a swarm of desert locusts in Lemasulani village in Kenya. Picture: REUTERS/NJERI MWANGI

The Southern African region is  unlikely to be affected by the locust outbreak that has devastated parts of East Africa, a government research organisation says.  

The Agricultural Research Council (ARC) said though the risk of locust swarms invading SA and the rest of the region may be low, the country is prepared to manage or control such an outbreak with local expertise, pesticide stocks, spray aircraft and other measures. The council said it, together with the department of agriculture, has considerable experience in the management of locust outbreaks, based on previous incidents of red and brown locust that were successfully managed between 1980 to 2005.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the situation in East Africa is “extremely serious” and an “unprecedented threat” to the food security and livelihoods of those in the Horn of Africa. The UN says about $80m is needed to control the outbreak that threatens to worsen a famine situation for millions of people in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and elsewhere in the region.

“This has become a situation of international dimensions that threatens the food security of the entire subregion,” FAO director-general Qu Dongyu said last week.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that in Kenya, police facing the country’s largest outbreak in 70 years have fired machine guns and tear gas into swarms in an effort to prevent them from consuming fields. Ethiopia is spraying pesticide from small planes to displace hovering throngs, though swarms have forced passenger jets in the region to make emergency landings.

According to reports, in Eritrea and Djibouti, teams in the hundreds are chasing swarms with hand-held pesticide pumps and truck-mounted sprayers. Extreme weather is behind the infestation, the UN said. East Africa experienced abnormally heavy rains late in 2019, flooding regions that are normally semi-arid. Such conditions are favourable for locust breeding, which can increase substantially if not disrupted — a challenge in cash-strapped countries contending with insurgencies and other security challenges, The Wall Street Journal reported. The outbreak might not be under control until June when drier weather arrives.

Devastating swarms

If the outbreak is not controlled and conditions remain favourable for breeding, it could reach 30 countries in Africa and Asia, the UN said.

Locusts are part of a large group of insects commonly called grasshoppers. Swarms can travel between 5km and 130km or more in a day. A desert locust adult — the most devastating of all locust species — can consume about its own weight in fresh food a day — that is about 2g. A small part of an average swarm (or about a ton of locusts) eats the same amount of food in one day as about 10 elephants or 25 camels or 2,500 people, according to the FAO.

Southern Africa has its own subspecies of the desert locust, known as Schistocerca gregaria flaviventris (the Southern African desert locust), which is endemic to the region and can be found as solitary adults across the semi-arid areas of SA, Namibia, southern Botswana and into southern Angola. The ARC said while this subspecies can breed with the North African Schistocerca gregaria in the laboratory, the offspring are infertile, rendering the possibility of swarms unlikely.

“It is therefore considered that the Southern African subspecies has been an isolated population for a very long time and is cut off from the North African Schistocerca by the tropical forest zone in Africa,” said ARC CEO Shadrack Moephuli.

He said the Southern African desert locust only rarely develops gregarious populations after good rains in the sand-dune area of the Kalahari Desert to the north of Upington and in south eastern Namibia.

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