As the coronavirus pandemic exploded across the world earlier this year, another even more notable plague ripped through East Africa: locusts. The voracious little beasts are especially fond of carbohydrates such as grains, a staple of subsistence farmers across the continent. In January, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) predicted the worst was yet to come and the size of the swarms could grow 500-fold by June.
And now, at its worst, a second wave of locusts 20 times larger than the first has descended on the region, thanks to heavy rains late last month, the FAO said. The swarms have invaded Yemen and established themselves firmly in the Persian Gulf after laying eggs along 560 miles of Iran’s coastline. New swarms are particularly severe in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia.
“The timing is really appalling because the farmers are just planting and the seedlings are just now coming up as it’s the start of the rainy season,” said Keith Cressman, senior locust forecasting officer at FAO. “And that’s also true if you have an increasing number of swarms in Kenya and in Ethiopia. There are already photos and reports of the seedlings being hammered by the swarms. So basically it’s for the farmers’ crops.”
“This poses an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods,” FAO officials wrote in a brief letter last week. All of this is happening as the region goes into lockdown to avert the coronavirus pandemic and as travel restrictions prevent experts from going to countries to train people. A more brutal combination of factors is hard to imagine. “The problem is that most countries were not ready and are now being invaded with swarms,” said ecologist Cyril Piou of France’s Agricultural Research Center for International Development, which helps economically developing countries with agricultural issues. “The solution is to gain as much control as possible.”
It would also be hard to imagine a more perfect enemy than the locust: in this case, the desert locust, one of 20 species of normally solitary locusts that get “cozy” and form into swarms that can travel 90 miles in a day. Their transformation and swarming is caused by rain; desert locusts can only lay their eggs in moist sand, as they would cook through dry sand. After a storm, the locusts breed like crazy, grabbing a square foot of sand with perhaps 1,000 eggs.
When those eggs hatch, the grasshoppers find themselves in a newly lush environment full of food. They will sweep it clean and take off in swarms in search of more and more vegetation to destroy. Their bodies actually transform to prepare them for the journey; their muscles thicken and their color changes from a dull brownish green to an electric yellow and black. This color shift likely has to do with the herd of locusts now eating the poisonous plants they previously avoided as solitary insects: that bright color warns predators that they are poisonous as a result of their diet. If they were this color when solitary, they would stand out from predators, but since they gather in their billions, it doesn’t mean they need to be inconspicuous anymore. There is security in extreme numbers.
Start with rain
This particular outbreak started with heavy rainfall from two cyclones in May and October 2018 that hit the southern Arabian Peninsula. This allowed two generations of desert locusts to form in swarms. Each generation can be 20 times larger than the previous one. “The main problem is that this exceptional rainfall happened in an area with a lot of insecurity, wars, etc., so the first stages of the outbreaks’ revival were not detected in time,” said entomologist Michel Lecoq, former director of the French Agricultural Research Center for International Development.
This delay in detection unfolded despite the efforts of the FAO, which coordinates a complex network of data collectors to track down the locusts early, before they have time to socialize. They work with two dozen frontline countries between East Africa and India, with people patrolling trucks in search of the pests. They’re combining this information on the ground with satellite data showing vegetation formation — an indication that hungry locusts could very well track.
Sadly, the 2018 locust boom took place in the remote deserts of Oman, so there was no one around to sound the alarm. “We can help make better models, better predictions,” says Piou. “But if there is no one on the ground, there are no people, then it is not enough. We cannot replace people on the ground with satellites.”
The terrifying reality is that if you don’t stop a locust swarm early, you can do very little to stop it from spreading. These insects don’t respect the boundaries and they don’t respect the crops. Once the swarm arrives, it’s best for officials to deploy pesticides to reduce crop destruction. But that also requires people and specially trained crews – you can’t just give a farmer a barrel of pesticide and hope that no one gets sick.
Then comes the spray
Fortunately, countries currently invaded by locusts, such as Kenya and Ethiopia, already have plenty of experts who know how to perform a squirt operation. The concern is what will happen if the swarms spread to countries like South Sudan and Uganda, which haven’t seen major outbreaks in decades. “They don’t have a national locust program in their country within the Department of Agriculture,” said FAO’s Cressman. “They have no physical set-up, but they also have no expertise, no trained personnel in the various aspects of fighting locusts.” With travel restrictions, experts can’t get there to educate people. And even if they could get there, social distancing means you can’t fill rooms for grasshopper control classes.
The good news in all of this is that although shipments of pesticides and spraying equipment to Africa have been delayed due to slower supply chains in general, this particular supply chain is being distributed around the world. “It comes from the four corners of the planet,” Cressman says. “So we don’t depend on one region to supply us, which can be a bit risky because if that region really comes to a standstill, you wouldn’t be able to maintain the supply.”
Yet the timing of it all is catastrophic: locusts in the coronavirus era, with the harvest season kicking off in late June and early July. “And unfortunately, that’s exactly the same time the next generation of swarms will form,” Cressman says.
With countries elsewhere embroiled in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, the growing locust threat may not get the attention and humanitarian aid it needs. A locust outbreak, Cressman says, is a lot like a wildfire: Put it out early and you’ll be fine. If you delay, the swarm will spread and spread until it runs out of fuel — the food farmers across Africa depend on for survival.
Good news, bad news
The good news is that the swarms have not yet spread through North and West Africa. The bad news is that the magnitude of this outbreak is the same as that of the devastating swarms that hit the continent 75 years ago. From 1948, locusts increased unchecked in Africa and didn’t stop until 1963. “So if we don’t stop it now,” says Piou, “we’ll be rolling swarms from country to country.”
To prevent that, Piou is working with countries in the region to predict where the locusts will land next. “What we’re trying to do with them is be ready as soon as the swarms arrive,” he says, “to have a quick response and not let them reproduce again and regrow exponentially.”
This story originally appeared on wired.com.