‘Extremely alarming’ swarms of locusts plague eastern Africa, western Asia amid COVID-19 pandemic

Swarms of locusts are wreaking havoc on crops throughout eastern Africa and western Asia amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

If the swarms continue on their projected path, the FAO says desert locusts can pose a threat to the livelihoods of 10% of the world's population.

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In January 2020, experts predicted a new and massive swarm of locusts would form in the Horn of Africa and spread to eastern parts of Africa and into western Asia.

“The current Desert Locust situation remains extremely alarming and represents an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods in the Horn of Africa,” the FAO reported earlier this year. “This will be further exacerbated by new breeding that has commenced, which will cause more locust infestations.”

The FAO kept an eye on three hot spots where widespread infestations and a new generation of breeding threatened food security in the region.

The first hot spot was in the Horn of Africa with the most worst impacted areas being Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya, according to the FAO’s February 2020 report.

The second hot spots where infestations started to grow were along both sides of the Red Sea in Sudan, Egypt, Eritrea, Yemen and Omar.

Southwest Asia was the third spot, but breeding has since ended in southern Iran and southwest Pakistan where locust infestations are rapidly declining as a result of control operations and migration to the summer breeding areas along the border, according to the FAO.

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Spring-bred adult groups and swarms of locusts have continued further east into several states of northern India because the monsoon rains have not yet arrived. These infestations are expected to return with the onset of the rains to rapidly mature and lay eggs.

Early June projections by the FAO are forecasting the second generation of spring-bred locusts in eastern Africa, giving rise to new, powerful swarms of locust babies capable of wreaking havoc until mid-July or beyond.

Swarms are most intense in East African countries, including Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, but data from the FAO's Desert Locust Watch documents steadily worsening infestations across Southwest Asia and the Middle East. Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Uganda and Iran are among the countries afflicted.

"In Kenya, it's the worst outbreak they've had to face in the last 70 years," said Keith Cressman, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's senior locust forecasting officer, in an interview with NPR. "In India or Pakistan, it's probably the worst they've had to face in the last quarter of a century."

The swarms are gargantuan masses of tens of billions of flying bugs. They range anywhere from a square third of a mile to 100 square miles or more, with 40 million to 80 million locusts packed in half a square mile. They bulldoze pasturelands in dark clouds the size of football fields and small cities. In northern Kenya, Cressman says, one swarm was reported to be 25 miles long by 37 miles wide — it would blanket the city of Paris 24 times over.

According to Cressman, powerful cyclones in 2018 dumped water in Oman, Yemen and the Horn of Africa. The wet conditions have persisted, creating ideal bug breeding conditions. This is believed to be the reason for the upsurge in swarms.

Once they enter the gregarious phase, a generation of locusts can multiply 20-fold every three months. So when they boom, they do so exponentially, and things quickly get out of hand.

The gregarious phase is when locusts begin to produce rapidly and become even more crowded together. In these circumstances, they shift completely from their solitary lifestyle to a group lifestyle, according to National Geographic. Locusts can even change color and body shape when they move into this phase. Their endurance increases and their brains get larger.