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Largest Locust Plague in 15 Years Hits West Africa - 2004-07-12


Swarms of desert locusts are arriving in West Africa, after leaving their breeding grounds in North Africa. The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization has warned that it could be the worst outbreak to hit the region in 15 years.

The locusts are leaving relatively dry northwest Africa in favor of the lush vegetation of West Africa, which is starting its rainy season.

Huge swarms of millions of insects, have been reported in Senegal, Mauritania, Mali and three of the islands of Cape Verde.

A locust expert at the Food and Agricultural Organization, Keith Cressman, says the locusts move quickly and the spread could reach as far as western Sudan.

"Locusts move about 100 kilometers a day," he explained. "They move with the wind. We are expecting that more and more swarms will be coming from northwest Africa for most of this month. Now, these populations they will stay in the countries for as long as the rains are falling for as long as the vegetation is green. Once those conditions become dry, and that is maybe closer to the end of this year, then there will be a shift of locust populations out of the summer areas."

Locusts can consume the equivalent of their own body weight every day, destroying crops and trees, as well as creating a nuisance. The damage affects such staple crops as corn, sweet potatoes, sorghum and cassava, as well as valuable grazing land.

Although control efforts from the air and ground have been underway for more than a month, officials say more money is needed to control the spread.

Spraying pesticides to kill the locusts before they can lay eggs is the only way to prevent an outbreak as devastating as the one in the late 1980s, but the method can be hazardous for the environment. The last major outbreak affected 28 countries, and cost upwards of $300 million dollars in control efforts.

Many of the affected nations are poor, and Keith Cressman of the Food and Agricultural Organization is concerned for the farmers who are dependent on the harvests for survival.

"These swarms are arriving just at the beginning of the rainy season, and the planting of the crops coincides with the rainy season. So, that means the subsistence farmers, those who rely on the rain to supplement their crops, have planted the seeds, and these seeds, they are just about ready to sprout," he added. "So, the new seedlings are certainly at risk by the incoming swarm."

Mr. Cressman also warned that locusts that survive through the rainy season could potentially reproduce, causing an even greater locust outbreak next year.