- Billions of desert locusts in East Africa are swarming at “unprecedented numbers” and pose a huge threat to the region’s food insecurity, the UN warns.
- The swarms are so bad that Somalia declared a national emergency. Ethiopia and Kenya are struggling to maintain the outbreak, and scientists fear that the insects could eventually spread across Southwest Asia and the Middle East.
- The swarms are a result of heavy rainfall and cyclones over the past two years, which provide ideal environments for rapid breeding.
- Photos reveal a skin-crawling look at locust plagues and how menacing they can be.
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Africa’s worst locust outbreak in decades is threatening the continent at an unprecedented scope. And there’s no telling just how far the ravenous creatures will travel.
Desert locusts are the most destructive of all locust species — known for their speedy growth and enormous appetites. A swarm containing one-200 billion locusts was recorded in Kenya, and each insect can eat its own weight in food. That equates to about as much food as 84 million people a day, according to a UN briefing.
Keith Cressman, senior locust forecasting officer at the FAO just returned from Northeast Somalia and told Business Insider that the locusts are like “a moving carpet of yellow and black objects” each behaving the same way, and packed together so densely that you can’t even see the ground below them.
The insects have already destroyed hundreds and thousands of acres of crops in East Africa, and the UN is calling for international help to quell the crisis. They fear the numbers could grow 500 times by June and reach 30 different countries.
These photos show just how damaging the desert locust can be.
A swarm can spread over 460 square miles, with 40 million to 80 million locusts per half-square mile.
Source: National Geographic
During plague recessions, or “quiet periods,” desert locusts typically live in very dry areas of Africa, the Middle East, and South-West Asia that receive fewer than eight inches of rain per year.
Locust plagues have been recorded since ancient Egypt, but there’s no evidence to suggest plagues occur with any regularity. Rapid breeding occurs only when the climate is favorable, making them somewhat difficult to track.
In 1875, the largest locust plague in history turned US skies black, when a swarm 1,800 miles long and 110 miles wide flew over the Midwest. Scientists believe there were trillions of “Rocky Mountain Locusts,” a type of insect that’s now extinct.
Source: The New York Times
But today’s desert locusts are just as havoc-wreaking. According to Dominique Burgeon, an emergency services director at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the current outbreak in Africa is “an unprecedented situation.”
Source: Scientific American
During plagues, desert locusts can spread over millions of miles and travel into parts of 60 countries. This affects over 20% of the earth’s land surface, and according to the UN, plagues can damage the livelihoods for one-tenth of the world’s population.
Plagues are defined as periods of one or more years of widespread infestations as a result of good breeding conditions. Throughout the 1900s, there were six recorded plagues. One of them lasted 13 years.
Favorable breeding conditions during plagues include moist, sandy soil, and green vegetation. Females can lay up to 158 eggs per egg pod, and are able to reproduce at least three times throughout their life.
Before reaching adulthood, locusts are in an immature stage and referred to as “hoppers.” Much like teenagers, this is when their appetites are the most ravenous, said Keith Cressman.
Eggs hatch in about two weeks and can reach adulthood anywhere between three weeks and nine months.
Desert locusts can travel with the wind and easily cover over 90 miles per day, with the ability to stay in the air for a long time. Swarms have regularly crossed the Red Sea, which is 186 miles wide.
As desert locusts become more numerous, they change their behavior to be “gregarious,”and act as a part of a larger group. During this process their color changes from brown (solitary) to yellow and pink (gregarious).
Locusts typically have a lifespan of about three to five months, depending on weather and ecological conditions. Since desert locusts breed so quickly, a plague can last longer than a decade.
Though swarms can look menacing, desert locusts do not outwardly attack people or animals, and there is no evidence to suggest they carry diseases.
But fighting locusts is an expensive battle. From 2003-2005, $450 million was spent to stop a desert locust plague in Africa that resulted in $2.5 billion worth of crop damage.
Source: Arizona State University
The current locust outbreak in East Africa is thought to have originated in Yemen, traveling over the Red Sea to Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya.
Unusual cyclones and periods of heavy rainfall from 2018-19 created an ideal environment for the insects to breed, according to the UN. Climate scientists blame this on rapidly warming oceans, and as swarms continue to grow, they fear the locusts will soon spread to multiple countries.
Keith Cressman described the current outbreak as an upsurge, but warned that if it is not controlled, and the weather continues to favor locust breeding then a plague could be reached by the end of the year.
This has been the largest outbreak of desert locusts in Somalia and Ethiopia in 25 years. In Kenya, an outbreak of this scope hasn’t been seen in 70 years.
Source: UN News
The UN estimates that 24 million people are already facing food shortages from weather, general food insecurity, and locust invasions. In Ethiopia, the UN warned that eight million people may need food aid from locust crop attacks.
Source: Wall Street Journal
As of Sunday, February 9, swarms have been detected in Uganda and Tanzania. The UN fears that a new generation of locusts could coincide with the next planting and rain season in East Africa, which would make controlling the outbreak exponentially more difficult.
Source: UN Press Briefing
At the beginning of February, Somalia became the first country to declare the current locust outbreak a national emergency, saying that the infestation “poses a major threat to Somalia’s fragile food security situation.”
Source: Al Jazeera
“The current control operations that are underway are not enough, simply because there is an insufficient amount of financial resources,” said Keith Cressman. The UN fears that if they don’t receive the proper funding as quickly as possible, millions of people will be threatened with food insecurity.
Source: UN Press Briefing