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Volume 38, Number 3May/June 1987

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New Battle in an Ancient War

Written by Richard Hobson and John Lawton
Additional photographs by Stephen Dalton
Additional illustrations by Michael Grimsdale

Largely dormant for a quarter of a century, locusts are swarming again this year, threatening catastrophic food losses in countries that can least afford them.

Last year, after a decade of drought, rain fell in famine-hit areas of Africa. But the very kindness of the climate brought a new and wider threat to crops: across the continent, moist conditions triggered mass hatchings of locusts.

Innocuous and solitary most of the time - their arid habitat rarely affords enough moisture for many eggs or young to develop - the locust, individually, is practically harmless. But given the right conditions, its endocrinological world turns upside down, and locusts become the most voracious insect in existence.

Their metabolic rate increases and they reproduce rapidly: Each female lays more than 400 eggs in her lifetime, and a new generation can be ready to breed in two months. Their wings grow longer, enabling them to travel up to 3,000 miles in a matter of weeks, and they crowd together in frantic, pestilential hordes. Swarms more than 1,000 square kilometers (400 square miles) in area have been recorded, wiping out all vegetation in their path.

A single migrating locust can eat its own body weight in food - two to three grams, or a tenth of an ounce - each day. Though that sounds little enough, pound for pound a locust eats 60 to 100 times as much as a human being. Indeed, each square kilometer of locusts - typically containing 40 to 80 million insects - may well eat its way through 75 to 250 metric tons of grain and vegetation every day - the daily sustenance of at least 80,000 people. (In non-metric terms, a square-mile swarm contains 100 to 200 million locusts, which can eat 220 to 720 tons of food every day - enough for 200,000 humans.)

To combat the dangerous 1986 upsurge of locusts in Africa, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which has led the world's fight against the locust for the past 30 years, launched an international campaign.

Combining space-age intelligence from American and European satellites with sightings by African nomads, FAO's Emergency Center for Locust Operations, in Rome, coordinated spraying programs in 13 countries, where some 40 aircraft treated 20,000 square kilometers (nearly five million acres) with more than 500 tons of pesticides - nipping a plague in the bud.

"We waged war on the farmers' oldest enemy," said FAO Director General Edouard Saouma last October, "and we won."

A battle was won, perhaps, but not the war: Several swarms of desert locusts escaped across the Red Sea from East Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, where breeding conditions once more proved ideal.

By zeroing in on the traditional breeding grounds of the African migratory locust and the red locust - in seasonally flooded grasslands south of the Sahara - international survey and control teams have been able to prevent serious plagues of those species for the past 40 years. But the desert locust has no restricted breeding area and, given sufficient moisture, can spring up in any of the 65 countries where its eggs have been laid in the past.

Monitoring this species means surveying millions of square miles of trackless terrain, - much of it desert - with wandering tribesmen frequently the only source of early warnings of the emergence of the hungry "hoppers" with which each plague begins.

Controlling locusts with modern techniques and pesticides is relatively easy - provided you find them soon enough.

In the first six weeks after hatching, the locust passes through five pre-adult instars, or periods between molts, unable to fly or breed. When these hoppers occur in large numbers they form bands, which, to feed themselves, march forward in a front sometimes miles long, devouring every plant in their path.

Unlike a human army, whose progress slows as it grows, the locust band moves faster the bigger it becomes. Some bands advance one to two kilometers (one mile) a day, transforming green fields to brown stubble.

When, after a final molt, the hoppers become winged adults, their bands become swarms with vastly increased mobility. Towering in noisy columns over 1,500 meters (5,000 feet) high, the insects blot out the sun. They settle down during brief "refueling stops" in places where crops and other vegetation are succulent, toppling trees with their sheer weight and leaving vast areas of wasteland in their wake.

Locusts on the wing are marvels of stamina, able to fly at a cruising airspeed of 15 to 20 kilometers an hour (10-12 mph) for 20 hours or more. They may breed in one country and attack in another. Sometimes, almost as if heeding a regional commander, separate swarms join and attack together.

There is only one place where humans can meet these armies of locusts on even terms: at or near their breeding grounds, before they take wing.

And there is only one way the nations of a region can avert a locust invasion: by forming an alliance and counter-attacking everywhere at once, regardless of borders.

Late last November, desert locusts escaping from East Africa invaded Saudi Arabia, which quickly mobilized helicopters and ground control teams to help avert what FAO described as "a very real threat of widespread gregarious breeding... on a greater scale than at any time since the end of the last major plague."

FAO officials in Rome said they were confident that Saudi Arabia could deal with the dangerous upsurge within its borders. "They are totally self-sufficient in locust control and use the most modern techniques," one official explained.

But by virtue of its geography, Saudi Arabia's role in the war against locusts extends beyond its own borders. When weather conditions are just right, the insects use the Arabian Peninsula as a springboard to push back into Africa, north into the Levant and the Euphrates River basin, or east to Asia, as they have done periodically throughout recorded history. For several species of locust, the kingdom is both a vast potential breeding ground and a bridge between continents.

"If locusts invading this season from East Africa, or breeding here locally, are not successfully controlled, they could aggregate and spread in swarms northward to Jordan, Syria and Iraq and eastward to Iran, Pakistan and India," said Salem Bamofleh, who directs Saudi Arabia's locust control program. "Saudi Arabia is strategic in the fight."

Today, the Saudi government maintains nationwide locust surveillance through a network of some 170 extension offices run by the Ministry of Agriculture and Water. In recent years, anti-locust activity has been concentrated along the Red Sea coast, where locusts have alighted from East Africa. This locust season, which runs from November through May, the kingdom has been especially vigilant, said Bamofleh, because of alarming reports of breeding and swarming activity in the Sahel, issued from Rome by the FAO's Emergency Center for Locust Operations.

"At no time since the end of 1978 has the situation in this region been so serious," FAO warned in January. "It is serving to reinforce fears of a plague..."

For Saudi Arabia, the stakes in the locust war are enormously higher today than they were even as recently as 1978. The government has invested heavily in developing a modern agro-industry, not only in the traditional oases, but also in new areas of the desert made fertile through pivot irrigation. Wheat farming, in particular, has become extremely important to the nation, both as a food source and as a prototype project. In 1986, production of wheat reached two million tons for the first time, whereas 10 years earlier the nation produced a scant 3,000 tons a year. The kingdom is now not only self-sufficient in this basic commodity, but is a net exporter, and it has granted or sold wheat to Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Morover, the Saudi government is earnestly developing barley production and offers generous subsidies to those who cultivate the grain, as it does for wheat.

The hitch: Locusts love those cereals.

At his office in the government's Agricultural Research Center in Jiddah, Director General Bamofleh is well aware of the danger. He receives frequent reports on locust activity from FAO and stays in close touch with FAO's local specialist for locust control, also based in Jiddah. This season, the reports have indicated strong locust activity in the Sudan and Ethiopia, as well as sightings in Egypt, Somalia, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Namibia and South Yemen.

Bamofleh also receives daily weather reports from the Saudi Meteorology and Environmental Protection Administration (MEPA). Experts at the center watch for rainfall or high humidity, since locust eggs will hatch more quickly, and at greater survival rates, when there is moisture in the soil. They also look for barometric low-pressure areas southwest of Arabia, which generate the winds that can carry locusts across the Red Sea from Ethiopia and the Sudan to Saudi Arabia's western coastal region - the Tihamah. This area, especially the southern Tihamah, is vulnerable to infestation because its habitat nearly matches that of the African Red Sea coast - a sandy plain with balmy temperatures, ample vegetation and winter rainfall.

Moreover, the two coasts are relatively close. The Saudi coastal towns of Jaizan and al-Qunfudha in the Tihamah are just 300 kilometers (190 miles) from the African shoreline and Jiddah is just 200 kilometers (125 miles) away. The southwest tip of the Arabian Peninsula is less than 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Djibouti - just across the Bab al-Mandab Strait, at the southern entrance to the Red Sea. And locusts hold the flight endurance record for insects, a confirmed distance of 2,500 kilometers (1,600 miles) from the Canary Islands to the British Isles. Riding the air currents, locusts from Africa have no trouble at all reaching Saudi Arabia or Yemen.

This season and last, the desert locust has done just that, but teams in Saudi Arabia have met the threat head-on. Last December, five helicopters, and 10 pickup trucks outfitted with exhaust sprayers, dispersed insecticide on isolated pockets of mature breeding locusts as well as newly hatched bands of hoppers in the Tihamah, especially the areas around al-Lith and al-Qunfudha. Locusts were also exterminated in other areas, as far north as Medina and as far inland as Bishah, some 200 kilometers east of al-Qunfudha, and Ta'if, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) inland.

From December 20 to 26 of last year, the anti-locust teams concentrated their attacks on five swarms of mature desert locusts from East Africa that had spread across a large area slightly inland from al-Qunfudha. Each of the swarms covered about eight square kilometers (2,000 acres), reported the Agricultural Research Center. Many of the mature females in the swarms laid eggs, which did not augur well for the new year, when the hatchlings emerged as tiny grasshoppers with oversize appetites.

But anti-locust teams were poised for the onslaught. During January, helicopters and trucks sprayed nearly 35,000 liters (9,000 gallons) of insecticide to clear about 1,000 square kilometers (247,000 acres) in the al-Qunfudha and al-Lith zones. The teams encountered mostly young hoppers but they also found some adult swarms.

In mid-February Bamofleh said there were isolated pockets of locusts farther south near Jaizan, but the areas around al-Qunfudha and al-Lith were completely clear. "I can say definitely that no swarms have reached any area of the interior," he added. The key wheat-growing areas of Tabuk, the Qasim, al-Kharj and Hail had so far been spared.

At the same time, he said, Saudi Arabia was keeping a wary eye out for further influxes from East Africa, since the FAO reports gave no indication that locust activity was abating across the Red Sea. Fifteen spray helicopters were available as backup to the five that had already been deployed during the season, and ample supplies of insecticide were in storage. At mid-season, the Kingdom seemed well-positioned to cope with this year's locust threat.

Bamofleh, who has been fighting locusts for 28 of the 34 years he's been with the Ministry of Agriculture and Water, says he's seen a lot worse.

"In the past, locusts caused extensive damage to agriculture in Saudi Arabia," he says. "But not over the past 25 years." He attributes the turnaround to the advent of helicopter spraying, more effective reconnaissance and forecasting, and quicker response times by anti-locust teams. "Last season [1985-86] we experienced many swarms and heavy infestation by locusts and hoppers, but we were able to stop them before any noticeable damage to agriculture was done," he says.

In stopping the locusts in the west before they spread to other areas of the kingdom, Saudi Arabia has also effectively halted their migration to other countries.

Stemming the locust tide has not always been a purely entomological matter. Sometimes geopolitics was involved too. In the winter and spring of 1943-44, for example, with the world still at war, Britain engaged in a bit of insect diplomacy with neutral Saudi Arabia. At the invitation of King 'Abd al-'Aziz al Sa'ud, the British dispatched several hundred troops to the kingdom to support an international anti-locust campaign. The intent of the expedition was humane, but there was also a military objective.

"The battlefronts had moved away from the Mideast and a new dangerous threat had taken their place," writes British journalist and author Robert Stephens, who was on the expedition as a correspondent for British army magazines. "Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Mideast were threatened with a massive invasion, not of the Axis armies, but - a more ancient threat - the desert locust, which, if not checked, would have devoured the food crops throughout the area. This would not only have meant disaster for the civilian population, but also a serious military setback for the Allies. The Mideast countries would have been left dependent on imported food when Allied shipping was desperately scarce because of the expanding war in the Pacific and Southeast Asia."

According to Stephens, the expedition was two-pronged. The eastern flank was based in Dhahran, headquarters of the kingdom's oil industry, then just six years old. The western detachment was based near Yanbu' on the Red Sea. The groups relied on reports from Bedouin and from scouting parties travelling by truck and camel; their method was to spread poisoned bait across the path of the young hoppers soon after they emerged from the egg pods beneath the sand. The bait, recalls Stephens, "consisted of arsenite and soda mixed with bran and water," and the strategy was to stop the insects soon after hatching, or at least to kill them before they matured into winged adults.

The same strategy - to combat the locusts in the vulnerable, less mobile hopper stages - was used 14 years later against a major invasion of locusts in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. This time, the government of India sent a mission to try to prevent the locusts from spilling airborne across the Arabian Sea onto the Indian subcontinent. In the spring of 1958, the 21-man locust-control team, augmented by local recruits, went into the rural areas where locust eggs had reportedly been hatching.

In addition to spreading bait laced with insecticide, they sprayed and dusted the hoppers' habitat. Teams on foot just ahead of the hopper bands used hand-cranked dusting machines and motorized spray pumps, and four-wheel-drive vehicles were outfitted with power dusters or exhaust sprayers. Aramco's Aviation and Agricultural Assistance Departments provided logistical support.

The campaign, which was repeated in 1961 and 1962, was not entirely successful, but it did manage to blunt an onslaught in India. According to writer Daniel da Cruz, reporting in the November-December 1967 issue of Aramco World, "Farms around Hofuf were hard hit, the locusts stripping vegetable plots and even attacking the usually untouched leaves of tall palms. Unquestionably, however, the Indian anti-locust teams dulled the aerial spearhead aimed at their homeland by tackling the menace before its momentum became irresistible."

Many Saudis and expatriates in Arabia today recall seeing the sky darkened by locust swarms during successive invasions in the late 1950's and early 1960's. They recall that the locusts got inside their houses; that their cars were pelted as if by hail; that they picked perching locusts off the bushes; that they photographed hoppers on the march; that their gardens were brown and bare the next day; and how a farmer in Qatif angrily scolded his laborers for rushing off to catch the insects instead of protecting his crops.

Sami Labban, manager of Aramco's Agricultural Assistance Department, arrived in Saudi Arabia in July 1957 as a freshly graduated agriculturist. The following spring, in the heavily cultivated al-Hasa oasis, he saw his first locust attack. "I can still clearly remember the landscape, like a picture whose color and texture changed slowly as the locusts moved," he says. "There were hoppers by the millions, like small dots all over the place, and they were ferocious eaters. The locusts ate everything, even the tough date palm leaves. It was unbelievable."

In 1972, long-time Kuwait resident and author Violet Dickson told Aramco World of a locust plague in her adopted home in the early 1930's: "Clouds of them would come….Then, as soon as you got the next shower of rain, out would come all these hundreds of young hoppers. First it was a little patch, but every day it would get bigger and bigger and hop further and further until the whole place was a seething mass of hoppers,... falling into the wells and into the drinking water. They came into your house; they ate the curtains, they ate everything they came upon..."

But the locusts were not a curse for everyone. As Mrs. Dickson recounted, children in Kuwait had a grand time when the flying locusts came through: "They'd take off the kufiyahs - head scarves - and knock the flying ones down and catch them .... When I went calling on ladies here they would always bring a tray of fat boiled locusts and take off the heads and the legs and the wings and then offer them. The Bedu dried them on their tents and kept them all year. The salukis ate them, the donkeys ate them and the people ate them. The Bedu were really happy when they came."

The arrival of locusts was also celebrated in Saudi Arabia. Though the practice of eating them has largely died out, many Saudis recall what it was like. Sometimes the locusts were boiled in salty water, or lightly roasted over coals. Sometimes they were spread out to dry, "lined up like clothespins" on the hot steel of the crude-oil pipelines of the Eastern Province. Anne-Marie Weiss-Armush includes a baked-locust recipe from Yemen in her 1984 cookbook Arabian Cuisine - under 'Appetizers'. In the morning, she suggests, take two kilos (about 4.5 pounds) of locusts, rinse them, and bake them on a tray at 125 degrees Celsius (250°F) for four hours. Then let them dry in bright sunlight the rest of the day, turning occasionally. Snap off the legs, head and wings before serving.

For all cooking methods, discriminating palates preferred the inaknah, the female locust ripe with eggs, according to several sources. The bright yellow mature males, or 'usfoor, were also eaten, but were not prized, and most people shunned the daba, or hoppers, if there was a choice.

To the uninitiated, the locust seems a difficult mouthful, but it is reputedly a nutritious source of protein. It is also quite harmless in its solitary form. Hoppers are beautifully colored in deep black and yellow, and - especially in the third and fourth instars, when their tiny wing buds are visible and their short backs are still curved - they are actually cute: cousins of the amiable Jiminy Cricket. But swarming by the millions, or even billions, the locust is one of the world's most destructive insect menaces, and a dreaded curse to farmers and townspeople. "So we sent plagues upon them: Wholesale death, locusts, lice, frogs and blood, signs openly self-explained, but they were steeped in arrogance, a people given to sin," states the Koran in a verse about Pharaoh and his fate. And Exodus warns Pharaoh that locusts "shall cover the face of the land, so that no one can see the land ... and they shall eat every tree of yours which grows in the field, and they shall fill your houses."

Today, the ancient curse is not defeated. It is only held in check by modern technology. Speaking from experience even longer than his own, Salem Bamofleh says, "I don't consider this season's upsurge a very big invasion, compared with the past."

So, though the future remains uncertain, the present is safe. To Saudi Arabia, and to other countries that live in the locusts' path, even this is welcome news.

Richard Hobson is an Aramco writer based in Dhahran.

John Lawton, who writes from London, is an Aramco World contributing editor.

This article appeared on pages 6-13 of the May/June 1987 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1987 images.