Samburu men try to fend off a swarm of desert locusts flying over a grazing land in Lemasulani village, Samburu County, Kenya. Picture: REUTERS/NJERI MWANGI
Samburu men try to fend off a swarm of desert locusts flying over a grazing land in Lemasulani village, Samburu County, Kenya. Picture: REUTERS/NJERI MWANGI

The locusts are coming thick and fast as the low-flying aircraft punches through the swarm, leaving khaki-coloured streaks smeared across the plane’s windscreen and obstructing the view outside.

But the pilot — despite travelling at 160km/h — is unfazed. He simply winds down the window of the unpressurised cockpit, reaches his arm outside and wipes away what’s left of the insects with a damp cloth.

This is life on the front line for locust hunters, as they battle to contain the worst plague to hit the Horn of Africa for about seven decades, thanks in part to climate change.

On Monday in Rome, the UN will convene a conference aimed at mobilising $70m to help respond to the crisis.

The swarms emerged in Yemen in mid-2019, but have since poured into northern Kenya, the country’s worst invasion in 70 years. A “super-swarm” about 1,490km2 across was spotted last week. In Biblical style, the locusts have already devoured and destroyed 71,000ha of farmland across Somalia and Ethiopia. Earlier this month, a passenger plane was diverted and grounded in Ethiopia after an unexpected swarm blocked its entry to Dire Dawa airport.

Containing the plague is easier said than done, said Mehari Tesfayohannes, the chief information and forecasting officer at the Desert Locust Control Organisation (DLCO) for Eastern Africa, the team trying to control the ravenous insects from the sky. In specially modified Turbo Beaver aircraft equipped with spray equipment and pesticide tanks, locust hunters fly hundreds of kilometres across nine countries in east Africa to track down and target the swarms.

“Of course, sometimes the windshields are smeared with crushed and dead locusts, blocking the pilot from seeing outside,” Tesfayohannes, who has worked for DLCO-EA (Eastern Africa) since 1992, said. “But as the pilots are aware of this, they usually carry moist cloth to wipe it.”

A desert locust feeds on a plantation in grazing land on the outskirt of Dusamareb in Galmudug region, Somalia. Picture: REUTERS/FEISAL OMAR
A desert locust feeds on a plantation in grazing land on the outskirt of Dusamareb in Galmudug region, Somalia. Picture: REUTERS/FEISAL OMAR

The lightweight Beaver planes are specially modified to protect against denting due to locust crushing, while the engine cooling systems are fixed with strong wire meshes to avoid blocking by the crushed locusts, said Tesfayohannes.

But with just four planes at their disposal, ending the plague is a big task for a small team.

The UN has warned that the swarms represent an “unprecedented threat to food security” with locust numbers potentially increasing 500-fold in the next six months.

“The current situation is the worst we’ve had in decades and is a result of unusual cyclones,” said Keith Cressman, the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) lead locust expert. “Cyclones bring very heavy rains, meaning breeding conditions for desert locusts are extremely favourable for much longer than usual. As a result swarms can grow very rapidly ... the numbers just skyrocket.”

He added that these cyclones have in turn been triggered by climate change. “Locusts eat practically everything. A swarm can come into a farmer’s field in the morning and by midday there won’t be anything left. That field could easily have represented a family’s food for a year.”

Tesfayohannes is not optimistic that enough resources have been allocated to the crisis. “At the moment, even though we have some trainee pilots, we are facing a shortage of pilots who can fly the Beavers.”

© Telegraph Media Group Limited (2020)

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