A plague of locusts the likes of which have been unseen for over 30 years is about to hit Africa and the Middle East. Adding to the perfect biblical storm, the current coronavirus pandemic is affecting travel of international experts and in-country gatherings for training to combat the locust threat, said Rome-based Senior Locust Forecasting Officer Keith Cressman on Monday.
Cressman works at Locust Watch, a division of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which gives emergency assistance to countries facing desert locust invasions and constantly monitors the status of potential infestations. According to the organization’s most recent forecast report, there are new “extremely alarming” swarms forming in Horn of Africa.
Cressman, who has worked with the organization for over three decades, told The Times of Israel on Monday that the previous time the region has been in such danger was during the plague of 1987-1989.
The Desert Locust (Schistocerca gregaria) “is the most destructive migratory pest in the world,” according to the Locust Watch website. As depicted in the Book of Exodus, when the highly mobile swarms of Desert Locust form, “they are ravenous eaters who consume their own weight per day, targeting food crops and forage.”
While one locust may not seem a major fresser (eater, Yiddish), the swarms can grow to millions of individuals, “with the capacity to consume the same amount of food in one day as 35,000 people.”
The current widespread breeding in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia represents “an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods at the beginning of the upcoming cropping season,” writes the Locust Watch website.
Locust Watch works in collaboration with affected countries to assess field data, information and reports in real time, said Cressman. The information, he said, “is combined with analysis of remote sensing (satellite) imagery, weather data and forecasts, and historical data in our geographic information system and database that go back to the 1930s.”
Institutional memory, as well as Cressman’s experience, points to a very difficult year on the horizon: “Starting in early 2020, the global Desert Locust situation deteriorated, as favorable climatic conditions allowed widespread breeding of the pest in East Africa, Southwest Asia, and the area around the Red Sea,” writes the website.
It appears that the hardest hit countries will include Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Iran, Pakistan, and Sudan, the last of which will likely be affected later this summer, said Cressman.
“It is always very difficult to find and treat all infestations, and this is the nature and challenge of managing Desert Locust,” he said in an email to The Times of Israel. The inability to travel due to coronavirus restrictions may prevent proper, timely treatment.
Not all regions of the Middle East will be affected, however. Despite the proximity to the Jewish holiday of Passover, according to the useful forecast maps on the site — and confirmed by Cressman — it appears that the swarms will not hit Israel or the country’s crops.