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Locust plague could leap continents if hits Darfur

Thu 19 August, 2004 18:35

By Sabina Zawadzki

LONDON (Reuters) - Swarms of locusts sweeping through much of West Africa may advance as far as Saudi Arabia or even India, depending on whether the creatures take root in Sudan, a senior U.N. locust control officer has said.

Swarms of the desert locust have ravaged the countryside in Mauritania, Mali and Niger, but reaching Sudan's north-west region of Darfur may give them a nestling place to breed new generations that would move further east.

"There are lots of ifs and buts, but if swarms get into Sudan, which has a vast area of countryside suitable for desert locusts to breed in big numbers, there is a possibility that it will spread across the Red Sea into Saudi Arabia," said Clive Elliott, senior officer in charge of the locust group at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

"That would normally happen in October-November and from there it can move to its full distribution to the India-Pakistan border," he told Reuters.

Up to three swarms have already been spotted in neighbouring Chad some 400 kilometres away from the Sudanese border, Elliott said.

The swarms' passage leaves the countryside devastated as each locust eats its own weight in a day, destroying subsistence crops such as sorghum and millet as well as money earners like water melons. Entire crop fields can disappear in minutes.

The locusts must be destroyed before they have a chance to breed in Sudan, Elliott said.

But this may prove to be difficult if a large number of swarms arrives in Darfur, where clashes between Arab militias and rebels have left more than one million displaced and access to the region for international organisations is limited.

Elliott said Sudan's capital Khartoum is hosting an emergency meeting involving the FAO and representatives of Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Eritrea. Darfur is preparing airstrips in case aircraft are needed to spray the locusts.


A series of good rains falling in west and north west Africa from July last year have produced ideal breeding conditions for the locusts, creating the first plague since a three-year infestation that began in 1986.

Elliott said while it was too early to say how serious the locust infestation is, workers on the ground reported seeing more locusts at this time of the year than during an equivalent period in 1988 -- the peak year during the last plague.

The FAO could not yet quantify the damage wrought by the creatures and the effects on the population, though through anecdotal evidence Elliott said it seems some farmers are giving up planting all together because crops would not survive the locust attacks.

And there is no guarantee that the infestation would end this year. All recorded plagues in the twentieth century lasted more than two years with the longest lasting from 1949-63, according to FAO data.

"It could go on for several years depending on the ecological factors -- and predicting those is a pretty shaky business -- you don't know anything until weeks before," Elliott said.