WAMBA, Kenya — When the dense, dark smudge started blocking out the daytime sky, many in a sleepy pastoralist hamlet in northern Kenya imagined it was a cloud ushering in some welcome, cooling rain.
But the hope soon turned to terror when the giant blot revealed itself as a swarm of fast-moving desert locusts, which have been cutting a path of devastation through Kenya since late December.
The sheer size of the swarm stunned the villagers.
“It was like an umbrella had covered the sky,” said Joseph Katone Leparole, who has lived in the hamlet, Wamba, for most of his 68 years.
When the insects descended, the community quickly gathered to try to scare them off, using one arm to beat them with sticks or bang on metal pots, and the other to cover their faces and eyes as the bright, yellow insects teemed around them.
The children in the local school were shouting with fear, and the animals that the hamlet depends on for their livelihood also were panicking.
“The cows and camels couldn’t see where they were going,” Leparole said. “It really disturbed us.”
Adding to the fear and confusion: There had been no warning the locusts were on their way.
As the hamlet struggled to repel the surprise invasion, Leparole was reminded of the stories his parents had told him as a child of the ravenous swarms that once moved through this land.
“What was once a story has become real,” he said on a recent morning, shooing away the locusts that still plagued Wamba, more than a week after they arrived.
Kenya is battling its worst desert locust outbreak in 70 years, and the infestation has spread through much of the eastern part of the continent and the Horn of Africa, razing pasture and croplands in Somalia and Ethiopia and sweeping into South Sudan, Djibouti, Uganda and Tanzania.
The highly mobile creatures can travel over 80 miles a day. Their swarms, which can contain as many as 80 million locust adults in each square kilometer, eat the same amount of food daily as about 35,000 people.
Officials say the infestation poses a risk to food security, undermines economic growth and, if not controlled soon, exacerbate communal conflict over grazing land.
In addition to the 12 million people already experiencing acute food shortages in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, the locust crisis now poses a potential threat to the food security of over 20 million others, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, a U.N. agency.
“The magnitude of the problem is just so big,” said Cyril Ferrand, who leads the organization’s resilience team for eastern Africa. “The locusts are a moving target, and we are racing against time.”
The locusts are particularly threatening to pastoral communities like Leparole’s, which rely on vegetation to feed their livestock. While the current availability of rangeland is better because of heavy rainfall late last year, Leparole is worried what could happen if the locust infestation persists.
After serving 18 years in the military and a decade as a local councilor, Leparole started trading in livestock, selling the milk and meat in nearby markets.
With three wives and 17 children, his dozens of cows, goats, sheep and camels constitute the family’s wealth and only means of survival.
Since the arrival of the locusts, he said, his sons have had to shepherd the animals farther afield every morning so they could graze in peace.
“They are all over the area,” Leparole said. “The animals just stop eating when they see them.”
While Kenya started the aerial spraying of chemicals in January to combat the locust invasion, the vastness and inaccessibility of areas like Wamba mean that many of the eggs laid by locusts could evade eradication, said Celina Lepurcha, a local administrator in Wamba.
And despite the multiplying number of locusts around Wamba, the national government has stopped spraying in the area because of a depletion in the pesticide supply.
“If the chemicals don’t come on time, this vicious cycle will keep going,” Lepurcha said.
Given how quickly locusts can denude an entire landscape, there’s also fear they pose a serious threat to large herbivores in Kenya. The national parks and conservancies where these herbivores roam, along with the predators hunting them, play a key role in Kenya’s tourism industry, a major part of the country’s economy.
If the locusts “are to remain for months to come, then their impact on the plant eaters could start to reveal itself,” said Kieran Avery, director of natural resource management at the Northern Rangelands Trust, a community conservancy organization in northern Kenya.
The U.N. says that if the locust numbers aren’t suppressed soon, they could grow 500 times by June, which would prove ominous not just for pastoral communities but also farmers.
On an 8-acre farm in Maseki, a town in eastern Kenya, Mwikali Nzoka stood helpless while locusts devoured her fields of millet, cowpeas and tomatoes, among other crops.
“They are up and down; they are everywhere,” she said, throwing her arms up in helplessness. “It was so green here. It might become a desert soon.”
Paul Katee, assistant chief in Maseki, said new swarms continued to arrive even after authorities sprayed the insects in early February. The small-scale farmers in the area, he said, usually eat two-thirds of what they grow and sell the rest in the local markets. The locusts, he said, threaten the livelihood of up to 56 local households.
“We have never seen anything like this before,” Katee said, shaking his head. “Everyone is worried.”
While the spraying can be effective in controlling the pests, locals are worried the chemicals will taint the water supply used for both drinking and washing, as well as for watering crops.
The current infestation in the Horn of Africa was exacerbated by the heavy rainfalls that pounded the region from October through December 2019 — helping create conditions conducive for the breeding and growth of desert locusts, whose bodies undergo dramatic changes in response to the environment.
While sometimes solitary creatures, desert locusts can develop the wings they need to swarm across seas and continents with the help of warm temperatures and the right amount of rain to grow the plants they need for food.
The abnormally heavy rains were caused by the Indian Ocean dipole, a phenomenon heightened by “the continuous warming of the western part of the Indian Ocean due to climate change,” says Abubakr Salih Babiker, a climate scientist with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an eight-country trade bloc in the Horn of Africa.
Rising temperatures also mean locusts can mature more quickly and spread to higher elevation environments. Given that many locusts are adapted to arid regions, if climate change expands the geographic extent of these lands, locusts could expand their range as well.
“Therefore, in general, locust outbreaks are expected to become more frequent and severe under climate change,” said Arianne Cease, director of the Global Locust Initiative at Arizona State University.
The World Food Program’s executive director, David Beasley, warned last week that the region could face a “catastrophe” requiring more than $1 billion in assistance.
The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization made a $76 million appeal to member states for funding to control the locusts’ spread in the Horn of Africa.
So far, the U.N. body said, only around $20 million has been received — threatening efforts to curtail a regional plague that could lead to more suffering, displacement and potential conflict.
For Leparole, that threat has already arrived. On a recent morning, marching bands of juvenile, flightless black locusts mobbed the entrance of his home.
“If we don’t find a way to get rid of these young ones,” he said, “we will have so much trouble soon.”