By Nyawira Gitaka

While the entire world is fighting a pandemic, in East Africa we are fighting a plague as well. For the past few months desert locusts have invaded the Horn of Africa and are causing destruction of unprecedented proportion. This is said to be the worst invasion in decades with the desert locusts now already spotted in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Desert locusts or, scientifically, Schistocerca gregaria are solitary insects that under the right conditions transform into aggressive feeders indiscriminately attacking all greenery within their path, affecting both humans and animals.

When the alarm was raised by UN FAO in February 2019 on desert locust outbreaks in Yemen and the Horn of Africa, months before the swarms made their way through Ethiopia, that would have been the best time for East Africa to strengthen already existing responses to the credible threat jointly, which is something we completely failed to do.

Grasshopper invasion Tonywild

The threats posed by desert locusts are substantial enough that in 1961 The Desert Locust Control Organization for Eastern Africa (DLCO-EA) was created to combat this after a devasting plague in the 1940s that caused a major drought. This then raises some questions, how did these destructive pests pass right through our defenses, what systems are and were in place to not only fight an invasion but prevent one?

It is worth noting that the locust invasion has largely been treated as an agricultural issue due to massive crop damage leading to food insecurity; but on closer examination, it is a multifaceted problem. First, the main contributor leading to the population surges being witnessed are changing weather patterns. The increased rainfall experienced along the Arabian Peninsula favored continuous unchecked breeding of desert locusts, in addition these pests are dependent on wind for migration. It is therefore a climate change issue.

Second, desert locusts being pests means that learning their ecology is vital so as to ensure the control measures utilized are not only effective but safe. It is considered the most significant and dangerous migratory pest in the world solely due to its ability to change not only its behavior but its physiology as well in response to environmental changes. This also important because its developmental stages exhibit different behavior patterns, with the most destructive phase being the hopper stage. This stage also happens to be the stage targeted for control before the adult stage after which control becomes very difficult.

Third and most important is that desert locusts are transboundary pests. This means the safety of a country is dependent not only on its immediate neighbors but far off countries as well, their ability to control or eliminate the menace before it spreads as well as information sharing across boundaries.

With these facts at hand, it is obvious that a one-dimensional approach against an 80 million insect strong swift and ferocious adversary is setting up for failure. This means that an early warning system should and must involve a number of experts so as to obtain information that is robust and can be relied on in making critical decisions. It is unfortunate that most early warning systems are highly disaster driven and abandoned in periods free of any disasters; this being a great example – yet if the economic losses and destruction were to be quantified

what exactly would an early warning system entail? In this case national meteorological services of member states can provide information on weather patterns that inform the migratory route, the entomological societies and ecologists should inform on the latest tools, safest chemicals and approaches of fighting the pests as well as the agricultural, forestry and conservation departments can provide satellite imagery that will help identify potential breeding sites and areas prone to invasions. In many cases, these experts work independent of each other which puts countries and the region as well in a very precarious position.

TonyWild Anthony Ochieng

As much as The Desert Locust Control Organization for Eastern Africa (DLCO-EA) exists with countries as member states, it is important that each country has its own system as well localize the early warning system to areas prone to invasions and potential breeding sites. There should be continuous monitoring and surveillance as well as adequately trained personnel on the latest control operations in case of invasions. With localized monitoring and personnel responses come quicker and enhanced early pest control.

A key challenge has also been the communication about the plague to the public. With this being the worst invasion in decades a lot of farmers have never come across a desert locust and have little information about it. In one case a cabinet secretary requested for individuals to take photos of what they thought to be desert locusts and send them through social media for verification and identification. This then became a subject of ridicule on social media and the exercise yielded no results.

Why not have the experts all share information about the desert locusts in simple and effective language? With an early warning system adopted at a local, national and regional level against desert locust invasions, the approach can not only improve responses in case of an infestation but can also reduce the economic and physical destruction in case of an aggressive plague.

The set up of such a system calls for a lot of cooperation and collaboration across and along various lines to secure the region as this is the only sure way to protect against desert locusts in this era of climate change.