Along with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, East Africa is facing a concurrent crisis: the worst locust swarm in 70 years. The first swarms appeared in late 2019, consisting of hundreds of billions of locusts. Since then, these insects have only continued to reproduce. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has stated that without any management, by the end of July 2020, the upcoming third generation of locusts will number in the trillions because, in each generation, locusts multiply by 20. Currently, Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia are the countries most affected by these desert locusts.
Locusts have been around a long time, with estimates dating back to 3200 B.C., mainly in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. They typically do not pose a large threat, as they only form huge swarms in abnormal weather conditions. In late 2019, there was a large amount of rain in East Africa during what was supposed to be a dry season, meaning that locusts had more area to lay eggs due to the recent vegetation growth. Many scientists suspect that these weather changes are due to climate change, which caused a surplus of rainfall. Young locusts live as solitary grasshoppers until rainfall when there is a surge in mating that triggers the locusts’ “gregarious phase,” during which their brains change so they become attracted to one another, and hence, swarm together. This adaptation to the change in weather is called phenotypic plasticity. Furthermore, the gregarious phase also strengthens their ability to fly. Coupled with the favorable wind conditions, the swarms are able to travel hundreds of miles in a single day.
Locust swarms pose a major danger to human food supply since each locust eats its own weight in crops each day. While a typical adult locust only weighs about two grams, a swarm of trillions of locusts devours tons of crops, possibly resulting in a food shortage in East Africa. The locusts have already damaged 25,000 kilometers of cropland. To put it in perspective, in one day, 40 million locusts eat the same amount of food as 35,000 people. Currently, there are already 20 million people who are facing food insecurity in East Africa. A shortage of food forces men out of the house to scour for food as food prices increase, leaving women and other at-risk groups vulnerable to violence and theft. Somalia was the first nation to declare a state of emergency in February, and it is predicted that between July and September, 3.5 million people will face a food shortage in Somalia alone, compounding Somalia’s COVID-19 epidemic and terrorist violence.
Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to exterminate the locusts. Typically, pesticides are used; however, due to the pandemic, countries have closed their borders and reduced trade, which has caused a shortage of pesticides and delayed shipments. Cyril Ferrand, FAO’s head of resilience for Eastern Africa, predicts that Kenya will run out of pesticides, and must rely upon local sources to receive pesticides. Additionally, lockdowns in certain countries, such as South Africa, prevents the usage of helicopters that previously monitored and contained the locust infested areas by spraying pesticides aerially. As Dino Martins, an entomologist and evolutionary biologist, states, “It’s extremely alarming because of the devastation [the locusts] can bring if left unchecked, especially to agricultural production.” The International Rescue Committee (IRC) states that Somalia alone needs $1.98 million to provide meaningful relief to the desert locust crisis. By the end of 2020, it is estimated that these locusts will cause $8.5 billion worth of damage in livestock. Tiampati Leletit, a herdsman in Kenya, described to The Guardian how the locusts invaded and consumed all his crops, leaving his livestock to die. Not only are the animals a source of food, but also of pride. He states, “I don’t know what else I can do to support my family.” Without any additional aid or funding, the locust problem will only get worse; the IRC predicts that five million people could be left to starve in East Africa. The future of this epidemic is simply unlivable and uncertain to say the least.
Juliette Shang is a junior at Horace Mann School, located in New York City. She enjoys fencing and crew at school, and has a passion for STEM, specifically biological sciences. Additionally, Juliette loves to work with children, and volunteers with them often in her neighborhood.