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New locust swarms projected to continue beyond November

Plague-busters: Israeli team combats swarms of locusts in war-torn Ethiopia

To fight the worst Desert Locust threat in 70 years, Start-Up Nation delegation flies in with innovative techniques, utilizing drones and nighttime spraying

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Illustrative: A farmer looks across as swarms of desert locusts feed on her crops, in Katitika village, Kitui county, Kenya January 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
    Illustrative: A farmer looks across as swarms of desert locusts feed on her crops, in Katitika village, Kitui county, Kenya January 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
  • Illustrative: A desert locust sits on a maize plant at a farm in Katitika village, Kitui county, Kenya, January 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
    Illustrative: A desert locust sits on a maize plant at a farm in Katitika village, Kitui county, Kenya, January 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
  • Illustrative: Swarms of desert locusts fly up into the air from crops in Katitika village, Kitui county, Kenya January 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
    Illustrative: Swarms of desert locusts fly up into the air from crops in Katitika village, Kitui county, Kenya January 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
  • Illustrative: Locusts swarm on a tree south of Lodwar town in Turkana county, northern Kenya June 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Boris Polo)
    Illustrative: Locusts swarm on a tree south of Lodwar town in Turkana county, northern Kenya June 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Boris Polo)
  • Israeli locust fighters task force leaves Israel for Ethiopia to suppress the spread of desert locust swarms. (Embassy Of Israel In Ethiopia)
    Israeli locust fighters task force leaves Israel for Ethiopia to suppress the spread of desert locust swarms. (Embassy Of Israel In Ethiopia)

At the request of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a crack team of Israelis swooped into the war-, storm-, and famine-struck country earlier this month to aid in its fight against a further plague — desert locusts.

Currently on the ground in the country’s eastern Somali region, the Israeli delegation is testing out an innovative technique of using drone surveillance and targeted night-time spraying, which will reduce the amount of pesticides.

As the country faces civil war in the north and massive flooding from Cyclone Gati, the locust swarms have invaded the country and are affecting over 70,000 households.

To combat the spread of the swarming menace, a four-man team, headed by Israeli Ministry of Agriculture locust expert Dr. Yoav Motro, was sent by Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.

“It’s the worst it has been in 75 years. And a tropical cyclone that hit the eastern part of the region in the past few days will only make things more complex,” Motro told The Times of Israel. “One has to note these regions do not deal with locusts on a regular basis — which hampers their readiness and their resilience to it.”

According to local Ethiopian media, the team arrived with two tonnes of equipment, including 27 surveying drones, 2 generators and a large supply of spray pesticides.

Keith Cressman, Senior Locust Forecasting Officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, told The Times of Israel, “As Cyclone Gati developed over the weekend, the current situation is similar to that of one year ago when another cyclone, Pawan, brought heavy rains to the area. Such rains allow Desert Locust to breed and rapidly increase in numbers.”

Israeli locust fighters task force leaves Israel on November 11, 2020 for Ethiopia to suppress the spread of desert locust swarms. (Embassy Of Israel In Ethiopia)

Without drastic measures, the locust situation is likely to only get worse, according to the FAO’s November 19 report on Ethiopia, as egg hatching and new swarm formation is projected to continue in November and beyond.

In part, the mission of the Israeli team — which includes a logistics officer, drone pilot and scout, and spraying expert — is to teach up to 300 local Ethiopians how to use the donated equipment to continue the war against the winged invaders.

Motro, the Agriculture Ministry’s head of vertebrates and snails, is using brain as well as brawn to fight the locusts: His team tracks them by day and sprays them at night while the insects are sleeping.

Desert locust couple (FAO/DLIS)

At a press conference on their arrival in Ethiopia on November 11, Motro said, “We found in Israel that during the night, locusts hardly move and that is our time. We will use its weak point for our advantage in this combat against the locust; it’s like a war.”

Said FAO’s Cressman, “This is a new technique that is being tried out, taking advantage of the current locust infestations in the Somali region of eastern Ethiopia.”

We will use its weak point for our advantage in this combat against the locust; it’s like a war

Israel’s embassy in Ethiopia describes the desert locust as “one of the most destructive pests, as it is highly mobile and [feeds] on large quantities of any kind of green vegetation, including crops, pasture, and fodder.” The last major swarm in Israel took place in 2013.

Illustrative: Swarms of desert locusts fly up into the air from crops in Katitika village, Kitui county, Kenya, January 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

According to Cressman’s Desert Locust Information Service’s forecast, a new generation of immature swarms is set to form in the Horn of Africa in early December. “If not controlled, DL will move south and threaten southeast Ethiopia, southern Somalia, and northeast Kenya,” reads the report.

Keith Cressman, Senior Locust Forecasting Officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (courtesy FAO)

However, all is not lost. “This time around countries are now much better prepared and equipped, resources are in place, and teams are already conducting ground and aerial operations in the breeding areas of Ethiopia and Somalia to reduce the scale of a potential swarm invasion to Kenya next month,” said Cressman.

At the same time, in order to fight the dual problems of insects and the destruction left in their wake, the UN estimates a need of some $79 million in Ethiopia alone, of which the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has so far received $30.9 million is for pest control and $16.4 million for ensuring livelihoods for the hard-hit farmers.

“So far, the response has been very generous from the international community given other crises at the moment,” said Cressman. “However, it will be absolutely necessary to sustain efforts and maintain the vital monitoring and control operations needed to bring the situation back to a normal one. But for this to occur, there will also need to be a break in the rains which has not occurred so far in the past two years.”

A locust swarm near Eilat in 2004 (photo credit: Yehuda Ben-Itah/Flash90)
Illustrative: A locust swarm near Eilat in 2004 (Yehuda Ben-Itah/Flash90)

The most common method of locust control involves aerial spray. According to the UN’s FAO, eight-day trials of spraying with the biopesticide Novacrid have shown a 50 percent decrease in locust populations.

One of the more problematic issues facing those who are tracking and attempting to eradicate the swarms is reliable and timely data on their movements. “The security disturbances and the unavailability of communication continue to affect gathering and transmission of data in some areas,” writes the UN report.

The FAO recently expanded its eLocust3 tracking technology to allow it to function on smartphones and on GPS devices. “All options work offline and transmit the same geo-referenced data in real time to national locust centers. Seconded and new staff who may have little locust knowledge can easily use any of these options,” writes the website.

Forecast of Desert locust risk (FAO/DLIS)

Some of this needed locust training is taking place now: According to the Israeli embassy in Ethiopia, the Israeli task force will operate in Ethiopia for two weeks, “during which it will demonstrate and train more than 200 Ethiopian locust fighters, governmental agencies and international organizations representatives.”

Motro emphasized his team’s mission to leave behind Ethiopia’s own “crack team” of locust experts. “The Israeli effort is different to the UN (FAO) effort in the fact that the Israeli mission empowers the locals with training and equipment to fight locusts, instead of doing the job for them,” he said. “We are coordinated with the FAO and appreciate each others’ work,” he added.

Wishing the Israeli team much success, Israeli Agriculture Minister Alon Schuster said, “Alongside our role in providing food security to the citizens of the State of Israel and [strengthening] local agriculture, we also have a responsibility to repair the world. We are committed to aiding in food production for human beings wherever they are, and to taking part in the global struggle to improve the standard of living in the developing world.”

Illustrative: A farmer looks across as swarms of desert locusts feed on her crops, in Katitika village, Kitui county, Kenya January 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
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