Agriculture is the backbone of Kenya’s economy contributing to about 25% of its GDP. It also generates 60% of the country’s foreign exchange and provides employment to about 70% of the total population.
Billions of desert locusts (Schistocerca gregaria) are invading and threatening people, livestock food and forests. The menace of locusts has spread in 18 counties so far. The swarms are travelling farther, and in addition to being a food security threat, they are damaging trees and pasture land. This is dangerous in a country like Kenya where the forest cover is only 7.5%.
We are experiencing widespread rains that might cause a dramatic increase in locust numbers in Kenya. The current situation is extremely alarming as more swarms form and mature in northern and central Kenya. This is the biggest invasion in 70 years according to FAO. According to Experts, locusts have the potential of destroying tracks of maize, coffee, vegetable and tea plantations, and can reduce massive amounts of food harvested, prompting acute food shortage.
This locust invasion occur during Kenyan long rains and planting season. It represents an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods. A single desert locust consumes its own body weight in food in a day. A million of these insects consume as much vegetation as twenty elephants in just 24 hours based on experts research. This shows how dangerous locusts are and how an entire landscape can be devastated. Locusts are a serious threat to the survival of humans but also to wildlife.
The use of pesticides putting human and wildlife’s health at risk
Aerial and ground control operations are in progress. The chemicals being used are purportedly safe for wildlife and humans but have failed to contain the invasion. As a result, people on the ground take harmul initiatives, as using pesticides that could have a serious environmental impact. In addition , desperate measures such as the police shooting in the air and spraying tear gas at the insects, while residents clap their hands, whistle and bang cans to try and chase away the thick clouds of locusts. However the widespread rains allow the new swarms to mostly stay in place, mature and lay eggs.
Experts predict that, although control operations have reduced the locust population, another generation of breeding will cause locust numbers to increase further and extend to other areas as new hoppers band and swarms form in Kenya.
Despite reassurances, concerns remain about the possible health implications for wildlife and humans when they feed on vegetation or drink from water sources contaminated by pesticides. There are also other concerns on the pesticide solutions. The products may not only affect locusts, they kill other useful insects, such as bees and beetles. Without bees, there is no pollination, therefore no fruit. Thus the use of pesticides may cause an ecosystem imbalance and create a vicious cycle.
Hope for natural solutions
We agree controlling locust swarms is no easy task. And the larger the swarms, the more difficult the task becomes. It is urgent the government and other involved stakeholders take the invasion seriously because it will hit the food basket hard.
Perhaps the so-called biological control mechanisms will be more promising. Natural predators may prove effective at keeping small swarms at bay. In addition the pesticides to be used should be effective against locusts and have minimal impact on human health and local environment.