Locust Swarms as Big as Cities are Causing a Crisis in Africa as Experts Warn They Could Get 400 Times Bigger

Parts of Africa are currently facing the worst locust swarms in more than a generation, with swarms the size of cities sweeping across countries including Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. The largest swarm recorded so far has been 37 miles long and 25 miles wide.

Earlier this week, the United Nations issued a statement saying it is the most severe infestation Kenya has seen in 70 years.

Desert locusts are one of the oldest and most destructive pests on the planet, traveling up to 93 miles and eating the equivalent of their own weight in fresh food every day.

These insects can form incredibly dense swarms, each containing between 40 to 80 million individual locusts per square kilometer, or 0.4 square miles. A 40 million insect swarm can consume the same amount as 35,000 people, consuming almost all the green vegetation they pass.

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"Being at the center of the locust swarms is like watching a gang of bad people slashing your crops and any vegetation. Swarms of locust decimate every green vegetation, including crops and trees," Omude Emoru, Emergency Preparedness Coordinator with the International Rescue Committee, told Newsweek. "This leaves smallholder agricultural farmers and livestock keepers devastated."

Experts predict the swarms will get worse in upcoming months and could reach sizes 400 times as large as they are right now. They are also anticipating severe food shortages and dramatic impacts related to food security, with new generations of swarms set to coincide with planting season in March and the harvesting season in summer.

"It's a humanitarian crisis more than an economic hardship, given how marginal the agriculture tends to be in the regions affected," Doug Yanega, Senior Museum Scientist of the Entomology Research Museum, University of California, Riverside, told Newsweek. "These swarms are threatening people's food supplies and livelihoods.

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"Basically, there are a lot of hungry people who will be going even hungrier when their crops are annihilated."

Experts have also expressed concern that these effects will spill over into interpersonal conflict as herders migrate to new grazing land.

"The herders will have a real challenge of pasture, and this may also cause movement from one place to another in search of pasture, with inherent risk of communal conflict over pasture or grazing land or passing territories," the UN Ambassador for Kenya, Lazarus O. Amayo, said in a statement.

Others will have no choice but to stay put.

"At least for livestock keepers in northern Kenya, south and eastern Ethiopia and north and central Somalia, they have an option of moving with their livestock to areas not affected by the locust swarms, but for smallholder agricultural farmers, they are left with no option but to consider their hard labor and food source gone," said Emoru.

Locusts swarm from ground vegetation at Lerata village
Locusts swarm from ground vegetation at Lerata village, near Archers Post in Samburu county, approximately 186 miles north of Kenyan capital, Nairobi on January 22, 2020. TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty

Swarms on this level are rare. Most years, desert locusts are found strictly in the arid and semi-arid regions of Africa, the Near East and South-West Asia—areas that receive 200 millimeters or less rain in a year. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), these periods of quiet are called recessions. During recessions, locusts will rarely be found outside of a 6 million square mile zone, incorporating all or parts of 30 different countries.

"Outbreaks of the desert locust go through phases of recession and plagues, both of which can play out over scales of years and decades and are difficult to predict," Arianne Cease, Assistant Professor, and Dr. Rick Overson, Research Scientist, both of Arizona State University told Newsweek over email. "The horn of Africa historically saw outbreaks of even greater magnitude through the mid-1950s."

Right now, the horn of Africa is experiencing an upsurge, with a large increase in numbers and multiple outbreaks triggered by a series of favorable breeding seasons. These swarms are the worst seen in decades.

Areas of northeastern Kenya have seen invasions 37 miles long and 25 miles wide. A swarm of that magnitude could eat the same amount of food as 84 million people, Keith Cressman,Senior Locust Forecasting Officer, Food and Agricultural Organization with the UN, told Newsweek.

And he warned the situation could get worse. There is the potential for two more breeding seasons over the next six months, each of which could increase populations 20-fold. That means locust numbers could be 400 times the size they are today by the summer.

man holds a locust
A man holds a locust he has caught to be eaten on February 11, 2020 in Katakwi, Uganda. During swarms, locusts transform from individualist introverts acting alone to gregarious extroverts moving in unison. At the same time, their appearance changes. The typically brown insect becomes pink (if immature) or yellow (if mature). Luke Dray/Getty

What is causing this year's upsurge?

This year's upsurge is the result of a series of weather-related events, including strong rains, drought and floods, and the civil war in Yemen.

The Horn of Africa—Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea—saw one of the wettest seasons on record last fall, with major flooding between October and December 2019, the World Meteorological Organization reports. In some regions, there was 400 percent more rainfall than normal—a consequence of the Indian Ocean dipole (or Indian Niño).

There were two cyclones in 2018 and eight in 2019, Cressman told Newsweek. Most years see one or none at all.

These hot, wet conditions have created the ideal conditions for locusts to breed and multiply. Because their typical habitat does not contain enough greenery for all these locusts, they run out and are forced to migrate in search of more—which they do in incredibly dense, incredibly destructive swarms.

Some people have cited Yemen's civil war as a factor in this year's locust activity. The reason is that it disrupted the country's locust response system, allowing the swarms to grow wildly out of control and expand to other regions.

"This year is exceptional, and the conditions are right for snowballing on a scale we rarely see," said Yanega.

Swarm of locusts aggregates near Lerata village
A swarm of locusts aggregates in Lerata village, near Archers Post in Samburu county, approximately 186 miles north of Kenyan capital, Nairobi on January 22, 2020. TONY KARUMBA / AFP/Getty

What is being done?

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has launched a $76 million appeal to control the situation. They are planning to reduce locust numbers to lessen the burden on pasture and cropping areas and second, by protecting locals' livelihoods.

Officials do not have long to act—there is a "small window" before the next planting season begins, said Cressman. Delaying the season could have major ramifications in terms of health and food security for people living in the horn of Africa.

Locust plagues and climate change

Swarms of these magnitudes could become more common because of climate change.

Rising temperatures are likely to expand the amount of arid or semi-arid land desert locusts inhabit during periods of recession. It is also likely to increase the number of cyclones, which lead to these exceptional breeding years by prompting ample rains and bountiful plant growth.

"In the past 10 years, there's been an increase in the number of cyclones that form in the western Indian Ocean," Cressman explained—adding: "Historically, cyclones have cause locust plagues to occur.

"If this trend of increasing cyclones continues in the future, I think we will be seeing more desert locust outbreaks and upsurges like we have now in the Horn of Africa."

"There is no win-win scenario possible," said Yanega. "Trying to reverse climate change is not something that is likely to happen, and even if we can, it will take a century or more to undo the damage that we've already done, so in the meantime we are looking at what amounts to little more than a small bandage on a life-threatening wound."

As situations like this look likely to increase in the future, approaches will need to include improving capacity for monitoring and treatment, said Cease and Overson.

There may be another solution, added Yanega—harvesting the locusts.

"On the one hand we have people who are spending money to feed and grow insects that are then sold to be used as food for a profit, while at the same time on another continent, nearly identical insects are naturally occurring in the billions, and they are being destroyed, at a staggering expense," said Yanega. "Those locust swarms are edible.

"Figure out a way to harvest locusts as a commercial operation, and they cease to be a problem."

The article has been updated to include comments from Omude Emoru.

swarm of locusts on shrubs at Lerata village
A swarm of locusts on shrubs at Lerata village, near Archers Post in Samburu county, approximately 186 miles north of Kenyan capital, Nairobi on January 22, 2020. TONY KARUMBA / AFP/Getty
Locust Swarms as Big as Cities are Causing a Crisis in Africa as Experts Warn They Could Get 400 Times Bigger | World