A brown locust outbreak that aggregated in the drought-ravaged Sarah Baartman and Chris Hani districts in the Eastern Cape is now moving westwards, warns Eben Du Plessis, chairman of the communications committee at Agri Eastern Cape.
Du Plessis cautions that this brown locust outbreak has the potential to be a colossal natural disaster that could eat deep into the famers’ pockets if it is not addressed.
The Eastern Cape provincial department of national development and agrarian reform in a recent media statement described the brown locust as an agricultural pest in South Africa that attacks all types of crops, although it prefers grasses, cereal crops and maize fields.
Prof. Frances Duncan, environmentalist at the school of animal, plant and environmental sciences at the University of Witwatersrand says that brown locusts (Locustana pardalina) exist all year round, but their numbers grow especially during the dry season.
Duncan says the locusts continue to breed when it is dry, laying eggs. “The brown locust is fascinating because the eggs can stay dormant for three to five years. When there is a build-up of the eggs in the soil and the good rains come then all of these eggs start hatching. The hoppers emerge and they meet each other and start to form hopper bands.”
Duncan says a female locust can lay about three to four egg packets in her lifetime, which lasts a month. Each egg packet can consist of about 20 eggs. She explains that the brown locust then goes through five growth stages before it can become a fully grown adult that is ready to fly.
She explains that the brown locusts are particularly harmful to crops because if a swarm ends up on the maize fields, they consume the entire field.
“At the moment the impact is not so severe, except that the locusts are competing with the livestock to consume grass. So, you don’t notice it that much but the impact could become very severe when the flying locust take off and they get into, for example, the Free State maize fields. That can cause considerable damage. They also eat the growing crops and that’s when food security is threatened,” she says.
Brown locusts moving west rapidly
Du Plessis warns that the damage that could be done by the brown locust in the Eastern Cape is enormous.
“The brown locusts in the Eastern Cape are moving westward at a very rapid pace. They are still walking at this stage and not flying, which makes it a lot easier for spraying. But as soon as they start flying, they are going to move very fast and will do a lot of damage,” he says.
He estimates that a swarm of locusts can damage a hectare of food per day and he believes that the brown locust is not a threat to food security, but rather a threat to farmers’ expenditure.
“I don’t think it will have a direct impact on food security, but it will definitely impact farmers because it impacts their grazing. They have to move animals and give additional feed to the animals since the brown locusts have the potential of destroying a lot of hectares in the Karoo,” he explains.
He indicates that they are trying to curb the brown locust outbreak by all means necessary with the assistance of the Eastern Cape provincial department of national development and agrarian reform and the national department of agriculture, land reform and rural development.
“We are getting good support from the national department. These types of outbreaks fall under national departments. In De Aar we have made some recommendations from Agri Eastern Cape side to the national department and they are listening to us and helping a lot at this stage,” he says.
He says the known affected areas are to the east of Middleburg, Graaff-Reinet and Cradock
“They are a lot easier to contain when they are not flying because they don’t move so fast. The sprayers can identify and spray them with pesticides before they can disappear.”
Du Plessis says the brown locusts first hit drought-stricken towns in the Northern Cape before moving to the Eastern Cape.
“Some of them are hatching in the Eastern Cape, but a lot of them are hatching in the dry areas of the Northern Cape and then moving into the Eastern Cape. Areas like Richmond, Hanover and Noupoort have been spraying for the last month already,” he says.
East African plague still a threat
Hundreds of billions of locusts of a different species swarmed through parts of East Africa and South Asia in the worst infestation for a quarter of a century, threatening crops and livelihoods earlier this year.
The swarms first appeared in Kenya in late December 2019, with a second wave following in April. The region is now bracing for a third, possibly bigger wave in the weeks ahead. Locusts haven’t been seen at this scale, in these numbers, for 70 years.
According to the United Nations, a locust swarm one square kilometre in size can eat the same amount of food in a day as 35,000 people, a devastating amount of destruction for local farmers.
Several countries and NGOs such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated over R2.8 billion to contain the swarms, making some progress in East Africa and Yemen, as well the Gulf states, Iran, Pakistan and India.