Gigantic new locust swarms hit East Africa

Photograph by David Chancellor, National Geographic
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New invasions are hitting just as growing season gets underway, threatening millions with hunger.

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“These...swarms...are terrifying,” Albert Lemasulani narrated breathlessly as he recorded a video of himself swatting his way through a crush of desert locusts in northern Kenya this April. The insects, more than two inches long, whirred around him in thick clouds, their wings snapping like ten thousand card decks being shuffled in unison. He groaned: “They are in the millions. Everywhere…eating...it really is a nightmare.”

Lemasulani, 40, lives with his family in Oldonyiro, where he herds goats that survive on shrubs and trees. He’d previously heard of locusts only from stories passed down in the community. That changed earlier this year when the largest invasion of the voracious insects in decades descended on East Africa. With their seemingly bottomless appetites, locusts can cause devastating agricultural losses. An adult desert locust can munch through its own bodyweight, about 0.07 ounces, of vegetation every day. Swarms can swell to 70 billion insects—enough to blanket New York City more than once—and can destroy 300 million pounds of crops in a single day. Even a more modest gathering of 40 million desert locusts can eat as much in a day as 35,000 people.

This is the worst “upsurge”—the category of intensity below “plague”—of desert locusts experienced in Ethiopia and Somalia for 25 years and in Kenya for 70 years. The region’s growing season is underway, and as the swarms have grown while the coronavirus complicates mitigation efforts, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates up to 25 millionEast Africans will suffer from food...

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