ISIOLO, Kenya – Besides the Masai giraffe, zebra, impala and leopard, a new species has made itself at home in a national reserve in central Kenya: the locust.
A huge swarm of locusts, big enough to “cover the sun” arrived all of a sudden, according to the rangers at the entrance to the Shaba National Reserve.
Locusts, flying insects similar to grasshoppers that travel en masse and bring devastation to the green areas they invade, have arrived in their millions.
Philip Githonga witnessed their arrival while he was at work within the reserve.
“It was like something from the movies,” he said, describing the scene as being like a huge cloud of dust that blocked out all the light.
This “huge cloud” is one of the flocks of a great plague of desert locusts that have devastated Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya.
“It’s the worst that have been recorded in 25 years in Ethiopia and Somalia and the worst recorded in the 70 years in Kenya,” Sergio Innocente, an advisor for alert, action, preparation and early response to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, told EFE.
Isiolo, where the reserve is located, is one of the eight counties in the north and center of Kenya that since the end of last year have seen the arrival of these insects.
They travel in flocks made up of up to 150 million individuals that can cover 150 kilometers a day.
That means they could reach Cape Town in South Africa in less than a month and a half if they wanted to.
The immediate risk is that they cross into Uganda and South Sudan, two countries that last saw the animal 60 years ago.
The desert locust is an invasive species that arrived in Somalia in July 2019 from the other side of the Red Sea.
The areas affected, mostly desert, are experiencing an atypical green moment amid the current dry season, brought about by incessant rains since October.
This, along with the wind direction, has led to favorable conditions for the migration of the destructive species, which has not been seen in this region in over a decade.
A year ago, the UN warned that there had only been one good harvest season in the past seven in the region. But in the middle of last year, luck changed and rain led to a prosperous time for agriculture.
The effects of the plague cannot be assessed yet, but the FAO considers that for the moment they have not had much of an impact on crops.
“The food situation is not yet endangered but since we are not in control of what happens in the neighboring countries where they come from – Somalia, Yemen – the danger is there,” Peter Munya, Kenya’s minister for agriculture, said recently.
His statement was different from the government’s official line, which warned there was a risk of food insecurity and ecological disaster.
In Kenya, pastures make up most of the land affected, so in the short term there is no imminent risk, the minister said.
“If the pasture has been severely affected, we will be soon in the next month or so, in deterioration of the body conditions of the animals which may result in immediate impact on food security,” Innocente said.
The leader of Tungai village, Steven Leto Longida, described the thunderous noise and unpleasant smell that came with the arrival of the locusts.
The members of this community of the Samburu ethnic group, who live a few kilometers from the reserve, went outside to clap and sing in a bid to scare the insects away.
At first, the locusts were scared off, but there were so many of them that the people couldn’t keep it up any longer – they ended up taking refuge in their homes.
The cattle, the livelihood of this community, fled in terror.
The village leader said they lost a cow that had eaten from the same grass on which the locusts landed.
Now villagers are scared to take their animals there to graze – afraid the insects are “poisonous.”
The government of Kenya, along with the DLCO, is using seven helicopters and small planes to tackle the plague with pesticide, but the aerial use of chemical products has sparked alarm in the population.
“We cannot say that they are neutral and that they are so selective that they will kill only the locust, indeed some of the chemicals have repercussions on other species and other insects that are useful,” said Innocente.
While Ethiopia and Kenya battle to contain the plague, the difficult governance situation in southern Somalia is making the problem hard to tackle, with a risk that the country could become a breeding ground for the locusts.