KATITIKA, Kenya — The hum of millions of locusts on the move is broken by the screams of farmers and the clanging of pots and pans. But their noise-making does little to stop the voracious insects from feasting on their crops in this rural community.
The worst outbreak of desert locusts in Kenya in 70 years has seen hundreds of millions of the bugs swarm into the East African nation from Somalia and Ethiopia. Those two countries have not had an infestation like this in a quarter-century, destroying farmland and threatening an already vulnerable region with devastating hunger.
“Even cows are wondering what is happening,” said Ndunda Makanga, who spent hours Friday trying to chase the locusts from his farm. “Corn, sorghum, cowpeas, they have eaten everything.”
When rains arrive in March and bring new vegetation across much of the region, the numbers of the fast-breeding locusts could grow 500 times before drier weather in June curbs their spread, the United Nations says.
“We must act immediately,” said David Phiri of the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, as donors huddled in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.
About $70 million is needed to step up aerial pesticide spraying, the only effective way to combat them, the U.N. says. That won’t be easy, especially in Somalia, where parts of the country are in the grip of the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group.
The rose-colored locusts turn whole trees pink, clinging to branches like quivering ornaments before taking off in hungry, rustling clouds.
Astonished by the finger-length insects, children dash here and there, waving blankets or plucking at branches to shake the locusts free. One woman, Kanini Ndunda, batted at them with a shovel.
Even a small swarm of the insects can consume enough food for 35,000 people in a single day, said Jens Laerke of the U.N. humanitarian office in Geneva.
Farmers are afraid to let their cattle out for grazing, and their crops of millet, sorghum and maize are vulnerable, but there is little they can do.
About 172,973 acres of land in Kenya are already infested.
“This one, ai! This is huge,” said Kipkoech Tale, a migratory pest control specialist with the agriculture ministry. “I’m talking about over 20 swarms that we have sprayed. We still have more. And more are coming.”
A single swarm can contain up to 150 million locusts per square kilometer of farmland, an area the size of almost 250 football fields, regional authorities say.
One especially large swarm in northeastern Kenya measured 37 miles long by 25 miles wide.
Kenya needs more spraying equipment to supplement the four planes now flying, Tale said. Ethiopia also has four.
They also need a steady supply of pesticides, said Francis Kitoo, deputy director of agriculture in southeastern Kenya’s Kitui county.
“The locals are really scared because they can consume everything,” Kitoo said. “I’ve never seen such a big number.”
The locusts eat the fodder for animals, a crucial source of livelihood for families who now worry how they will pay for expenses like school fees, he said.
His own concern about the locusts?
“They will lay eggs and start another generation,” he said.