Locust Swarms in Africa: What You Need to Know

Billions of locusts have invaded East Africa, devouring crops and pastures across a region already facing widespread hunger and humanitarian need. Here’s what you need to know about locusts and how USAID is responding to help curb the outbreak.

Swarm of mature desert locusts in Kenya. Photo credit: Tony Karumba, AFP

Grasshoppers with a mob mentality

Locusts are basically grasshoppers, but under the right conditions — typically following heavy rains — they multiply astronomically and band together to form thick swarms that hop, eat, and fly together.

An average swarm contains up to 150 million of these finger-length pests and can travel up to 100 miles a day. A small swarm can be the size of a few football fields, and a large one can be the size of major cities like New York.

Desert locusts change from brown to pink to yellow as they form swarms and mature. Photo credit (left): Petterik Wiggers, FAO (right): Sven Torfinn, FAO

Desert locusts: Among the most destructive pests

Desert locusts are native to East Africa, among other regions, and their outbreaks are infamous for their size and destructive potential. Desert locusts arrive in the billions, travelling on the wind, and eating virtually everything in their path. They devour both crops and pasture, leaving little behind for people — or for that matter — cows, goats, or other animals to eat.

Locusts descend on a field in Kenya. Photo credit: Tony Karumba, AFP

Worst outbreak in decades

The current locust outbreak in East Africa is the worst in decades, and it comes at a time when the region is already reeling from years of drought, followed by unusually heavy rains and flooding in late 2019. These are perfect conditions for locusts to breed, but not ideal for the millions of people in the region who are struggling to get enough to eat.

Mature desert locusts in northeastern Kenya. Photo credit: Sven Torfinn, FAO.

This is not a locust plague… at least, not yet

The outbreak in East Africa started when locust swarms from Yemen hopped the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden last year. The largest swarms are now in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, with smaller infestations in neighboring countries. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is targeting nearly 1.2 million acres of land, about four times the area of New York City, for rapid locust control efforts.

The current locust outbreak hopped from Yemen to East Africa last year. Map credit: USAID/OFDA

The widespread infestation is serious, but it would need to last one or more years to be considered a plague. Of the five locust outbreaks since 1970, only one became a plague in the late 1980s. But plagues can happen. In the last century, there have been six locust plagues, according to the UN.

Locust swarm in flight in northeastern Kenya. Photo credit: Sven Torfinn, FAO

USAID is working with the UN to curb the infestation

USAID is providing $8 million in humanitarian assistance to help prevent and control the spread of locusts in East Africa, including through ground and aerial control operations. This is in addition to $800,000 already provided to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Ethiopia for control efforts, 5,000 sets of protective equipment, and training for more than 300 pest experts and scouts.

Ethiopia Ministry of Agriculture staff sprays to address locusts in Ethiopia’s Somali region. Photos credit: Petterik Wiggers, FAO

USAID sent a transboundary pest expert to the region, and has disaster experts in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan who are coordinating with governments and partners to monitor the impacts of this crisis and assess humanitarian needs.

Camels walk through a locust swarm in Ethiopia’s Somali region. Photo credit: Petterik Wiggers, FAO

As with our response to a previous locust outbreak in West Africa, USAID remains committed to helping the people of East Africa curb these destructive pests and cope with the damage they leave.

Read more about USAID’s locust response in Ethiopia and our pest and pesticide monitoring work.

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