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Extreme weather linked to climate change helped create the perfect breeding ground

Now a new generation of locusts is getting ready to take flight

CNN Special Report A looming plague The fight to contain a locust invasion that could push millions into hunger

On this farm in central Kenya, people bang cooking utensils as they try to ward off an infestation of desert locusts, one of many swarms eating their way through East Africa.

Billions of the insects have ravaged trees, crops and fresh pasture in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia since December. Their voracious appetites pose one of the largest food security threats to the region in decades.

Now, a new generation of locusts are weeks away from turning into hungry teenagers as harvest season begins -- potentially ravaging the livelihoods of some 20 million people who are already food insecure in the region, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nation's global food body.

In recent months, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted efforts to fight the swarms of locusts, with grounded flights and closed borders. It has also slowed the delivery of important equipment, hampering the efforts of international experts seeking to join the fight against the migratory pest.

If not contained, agencies have warned that locust numbers will multiply by up to 400 times in June, and their rising numbers could turn the infestation into a plague by the end of the year.

The desert locust is considered the most dangerous of all migratory pest species because of its ability to reproduce quickly and devastate crops.

Adults can grow to be roughly the size of a human's index finger.

Female locusts can lay more than 150 eggs within a single “pod.” After about two weeks, eggs hatch into young solitary locusts called "hoppers."

Hoppers grow for about a month before becoming flying, egg-laying adults.

These young solitary adults are green and brown, to fit in with their surroundings.

When food is plentiful, desert locusts multiply and enter into what’s known as the “gregarious stage.” At the beginning of this stage, they change color to pink.

As they grow and become denser, they also change behavior to act as a group and swarm. Swarms can contain up to 80 million locusts per square kilometer and they migrate over large distances. At this point the locusts are fully mature, and lastly change color to yellow.

This breeding cycle, from egg to mature gregarious locust takes roughly three months and can bring a 20-fold increase in numbers. This can then increase to 400-fold after six months and 8,000 after nine months.

A mature locust in a swarm can eat its own weight in vegetation. For comparison, a swarm the size of Paris can eat as much food as half the entire population of France eats in a day.

Hungry locusts have reduced pasture and croplands to stubble in parts of East Africa, where millions of people rely on agriculture and pastoral land for their survival.

At least 40M people in locust-hit countries face severe food insecurity in 2020
By country, millions
Note: Highest estimated forecast for 2020. No data available for Eritrea and Tanzania.
Source: The Global Report on Food Crises 2020.

In Kenya, at least 173,000 acres of land were infested in January, making it the country’s worst locust event in 70 years. FAO senior locust forecasting officer Keith Cressman said a 37-mile-long and 24-mile-wide swarm was spotted in northern Kenya that month.

Desert locusts are the oldest migratory pest in the world. Yet extreme weather events linked to climate change helped create the unprecedented scourge in recent times, according to the United Nations.

Frequent heavy rains dumped on the Arabian Peninsula, due to an increased number of cyclones since 2018, created a perfect breeding environment for locusts.

Three generations of locusts thrived in the Peninsula, unchecked and undetected, according to FAO. Some moved east into Pakistan.

Large numbers of swarms began to flourish in Yemen, where war hindered the response.

Between June and December 2019, locusts crossed the Gulf of Aden and swept into Somalia and Ethiopia -- where more breeding took place and even more swarms were formed.

Estimated extent of infestation May 1-20
Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

From October to December that year, swarms from eastern Ethiopia and northern Somalia entered Djibouti and Kenya.

This year, swarms have continued to spread and reproduce through East Africa. They've been seen in Uganda, Tanzania and South Sudan -- one of Africa’s most food-insecure and fragile economies. The FAO worries that swarms could travel as far as West Africa in the summer.

Estimated cost in losses and damages to crops and livestock in 2020
Source: World Bank

If the locust outbreak is uncontained, estimated damages and losses could reach $8.5 billion by the end of this year, said the World Bank. Ethiopia is expected to be the worst hit.

This year the region is greener than average
Changes in green vegetation this year from 2000-2010 average (February-April)
Source: Normalized Difference Vegetation Index by NASA/MODIS via Climate Engine

East Africa’s rainy season, beginning in March, has created the ideal conditions for reproduction. NASA-funded scientists have partnered with the UN to help locate these sandy and damp breeding grounds.

Breeding started in May and authorities fighting the outbreak now have limited time to control their numbers. Eggs take around two weeks to hatch, and wingless young locusts are easier to target than a flying swarm. If left uncontrolled, more locusts are expected to go airborne in June and July.

Once the locusts take flight, targeted aerial spraying is the most effective weapon. A single spraying plane can kill two to three swarms a day, according to the FAO. Kenya has five spraying aircraft, which could potentially kill up to 18 swarms a day.

Over 400,000 hectares have been treated
Locusts sprayed with pesticides, this year, thousands of hectares
Note: Data up until 13 May. Figures have been rounded.

Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Not only is it a large logistical challenge to combat an infestation over such a vast area, but supply chains have been hampered with borders and ports closed in the fight against coronavirus.

This has delayed some pesticide orders, according to the FAO. Meanwhile, international and regional funding to help secure the fight against swarms has slowed-down since mid-March, the FAO said.

Without more funding and supplies, the outbreak could spell disaster for millions of rural and pastoral communities in East Africa, still reeling from severe food shortages caused by drought and other extreme weather events in 2019.

The coronavirus is intensifying their plight. The UN warned in April that multiple famines of "biblical proportions" could take hold around the world due to the pandemic.

Aid agencies warn the coronavirus outbreak may lead to a rise in food prices, worsening an already fragile situation in East Africa where 27 million people rely on food assistance for daily subsistence.

Climate change will only make future locust outbreaks even worse, experts predict. For farmers like Chris Amerikwa, who relies on every grain he farms to feed himself and his family, it is a future he cannot afford.
Press play on the video to hear his story.