Poor rains bring optimism African locust outbreak will fade

BARAKA, Kenya (AP) - In a convoy of pickup trucks with spray guns, soldiers race through Baraka's hills, leaving a trail of dust and confused villagers.
The vehicles brake when the soldiers see the enemy: billions of invading desert locusts that have landed in a twitching swarm where forest meets farmland.
The use of soldiers among the usual agricultural officials is evidence of the severity of the threat as the locust outbreak in East Africa has continued well into a second year. The young locusts arrive in waves from breeding areas in Somalia, where uncertainty hampers the response.
It's the start of the planting season in Kenya, but the delayed rains have brought some optimism into the battle against the locusts, even though farmers are still concerned about their crops.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says the swarms of locusts have been spotted in the Rift Valley - where Kenya's staple foods are made from corn, wheat and potatoes.
However, the FAO says the swarms in both countries are not yet mature due to the poor rainfall in Kenya and neighboring Ethiopia. Their number is also continuing to decrease due to the ongoing control operations.
Without rain, the swarms will not multiply, which severely limits the extent and extent of their threat, the FAO said in a recently released update.
"For this reason, there is cautious optimism that the current boom in the Horn of Africa is slowing, especially if bad rains limit breeding in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia this spring, followed by equally poor summer rains in northeastern Ethiopia."
Last year, authorities managed to contain the largest grasshopper infestation in Kenya in 70 years, mainly through coordinated aerial spraying that quickly covered large areas.
Many of these swarms were in uninhabited areas. This year, the swarms presented a different challenge by landing in inhabited areas. That said, spraying is out of the question as it could adversely affect people and livestock, says Ambrose Nyatich, FAO livelihood restoration expert.
The delayed rains are therefore partly an advantage.
Desert locusts pose an unprecedented risk to agricultural livelihoods and food security in the already fragile Horn of Africa amid economic crises, drought and conflict, according to the FAO.
A typical swarm of desert locusts can contain up to 150 million locusts per square kilometer, according to the East African regional authority, the Interstate Development Agency. "The average swarm can destroy as many food crops in one day as enough to feed 2,500 people."
Farmers like Hannah Nyokabi in Baraka municipality - which means “blessing” in Swahili - are in a difficult situation. Bad rains can reduce the risk of locusts, but it almost certainly means a bad harvest.
“Things went very badly. When you look at the farm there is nothing, "she said." We have kids who are in school and we were dependent on the farm for their fees. "
Another farmer, Anne Wa Mago, 60, called a bad harvest better than nothing.
"We're lucky (the locusts) arrived when we weren't planting or they would have wiped out our produce," she said, pointing to thousands of the voracious insects crowding a branch.
Groups of school children, some still in uniform, ran around the farms and snatched the locusts from the air or from the ground.
For them, the crush that recently arrived and almost polluted the sun is a godsend like no other. One kilogram of grasshoppers gets money from a non-governmental organization that wants to turn the insects into fodder.
"This is money that came on our doorstep," said 16-year-old John Mbithi. Anne Wangari, 12, said she collected 35 kilograms before going to school.
But FAO's Nyatich warned against using grasshoppers as food because they might have been sprayed with insecticides.
"The initiatives that have been taken by some organizations to use locusts for fish or animal feed should be explored how we can possibly regulate them in the future," said Nyatich.
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