New waves of locust swarms are forming in West Africa, where international experts say substantial breeding is in progress. As the situation in the region continues to deteriorate, calls for international assistance have been stepped up in an effort to control the locust upsurge and disrupt the next breeding cycle in October.
The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization says extensive breeding has been under way in southern Mauritania, northern and central Senegal, the north of Mali, western Niger, and northern Burkina Faso.
FAO experts say they expect a large number of swarms to form in September. Locust forecasting officer Keith Cressman says the current situation developed as a result of abundant rainfall throughout West Africa in the summer of 2003. Now, he adds, hopper bands have been forming and maturing rapidly.
"Those swarms that came out of north-west Africa at the beginning of the summer and they arrived in West Africa, they laid eggs," he says. "And it takes about two weeks for those eggs to hatch. Then those eggs hatched and the nymphal stage of the locusts, the ones without wings, they formed bands. So most of the countries now they have hopper bands."
Since last October, FAO has been warning of the growing threat to crops, saying the desert locust is the single most destructive insect.
Affected countries have expressed extreme concern about the effect the locusts will have on their agriculture-based economies. Mauritania, Mr. Cressman says, is already in a fragile food security situation and cannot sustain additional crop damage.
"The maturation of the locust now, of the hoppers becoming adults, happens to completely coincide with the growing season of the crops in West Africa," he says. "Then the formation of the new swarms will coincide with the harvest time. So, in other words, this year's food crops in the summertime being grown in the Sahel are at risk from the beginning to the end."
Mr. Cressman also says that countries bordering those that are already affected are equally worried.
"They are very fearful of course knowing the migratory ability of the desert locust that they might arrive in their own country," he says. "We have countries such as Benin, they have mobilized the army, for example, apparently to stop the locust from arriving in their country."
Severe crop damage has been reported on a local scale in the affected countries, but the extent of it is not yet known. Mr. Cressman says information is based on visual inspection carried out by locust teams that have visited crop areas and seen significant damage to the leaves.
"It is too early now in the cropping cycle to say what effect this will have on production and what food security implications this has on the region for the rest of the year," he says.
FAO Director General Jacques Diouf has said the next two months in the battle against desert locusts are crucial. He said more help must arrive this month to disrupt the next breeding cycle in October.
Mr. Diouf said it is essential that countries facing locust infestation cooperate in combating it. So far the international community has pledged just under $40 million, less than a half of the 100 million FAO has called for.
FAO locust official Annie Monard says the most effective way to control desert locusts is by aerial spraying by conventional pesticides. Ms. Monard says donor funds are being used to reduce crop damage and locust numbers.
"Now their main inputs are all the means necessary to treat," she says. "That means pesticides, flying hours, and ground logistics to assist the spraying operations."
FAO experts say locust control in emergencies has difficulties that often cannot be resolved. These include the length of time between occurrence of the emergency and the arrival of the donor funds. During that time, they say, locusts continue to increase in numbers.
FAO experts warn the current locust infestation could potentially spread beyond West Africa and develop into a regional catastrophe. They are anxiously watching where the swarms are likely to move next.