A plague of locusts has descended on East Africa, devouring crops, trees, and pasture as they move. The first generation, which emerged at the end of last year, numbered in the hundreds of billions. Left unchecked, locusts multiply by a factor of 20 per generation, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), meaning that the second generation that took flight in March and April numbered in the trillions. Now in July, a third generation is set to take off, paving the way for potentially calamitous food shortages in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Swarms can cover many square miles (sometimes areas as big as cities), move up to 100 miles a day, and eat their weight daily. Recently swarms have also emerged in India and Pakistan. Dino Martins is an entomologist, evolutionary biologist, and executive director of the Mpala Research Centre in northern Kenya, which is working to sequence the locust genome. Martins ’11 is a former doctoral researcher in the Naomi Pierce Lab in Harvard’s Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. The Gazette spoke to him about the current situation in East Africa, focusing on his native Kenya, where he currently lives.
GAZETTE: Are swarms like this a regular occurrence in the region?
MARTINS: The locusts are a really interesting phenomenon. We haven’t seen swarms of desert locusts in this part of the world for a long period of time. In fact, the last big swarms that we know of were in Kenya about 70 years ago, so it has come as a surprise to many people. It’s extremely alarming because of the devastation they can bring if left unchecked, especially to agricultural production.
The first swarm appeared in Kenya on Dec. 30 and then they very, very quickly spread through the country. The reason for that is the wind patterns were helping them. What’s happening now is the winds have turned again. The southeast monsoons are blowing from the Indian Ocean onto Kenya and so the winds are blowing from the south and they’re carrying the locust swarms. Even though locusts can move large distances, they make use of the wind. They can’t fly against it very well, so the locusts are moving with the wind from where they were in the more central parts of Kenya further north into the border regions, with Somalia, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. We expect that to continue for a few months, but they have laid eggs, and the eggs are hatching, and they are breeding, leading to what’s believed to be potential third generation of locusts.
Right now, there are bands of hoppers or nymphs — these are locusts in their immature stages — that are being observed in parts of northern Kenya and because the conditions are good, and there are rains going into the Horn of Africa, they will breed in other areas. Now, the question is: Will they be able to breed up enough to form even larger swarms? They might do that, and they might not. Right now, the prediction is that they will continue breeding and continue potentially increase in number.
That’s really worrying because large parts of Kenya have very lush, fertile agricultural areas. We have in Kenya this amazing geography of hot-dry areas and then these highlands, which is where most of the population lives and most of our food is produced. Not just for Kenya either. We export food to lots of other parts of the world. Most of the places the locusts have bred right now are not agricultural. They’re either pastoral or have just been natural, wild areas that don’t have a lot of activity other than grazing by livestock and whatnot. The real concern is if they move south when the wind changes again and the locusts do move in large numbers into much higher agriculturally productive areas.
GAZETTE: What happens then?
MARTINS: It could be devastating if the swarms move into those areas. We will see bigger swarms affecting food security and moving through the landscape.