Israel issues locust alert after bugs plague Egypt

Winds, climactic conditions in region make possible arrival of locusts from Egypt to Israel, Agriculture Ministry says.

March 4, 2013 21:46
Locust photographed during last invasion into Israel in 2004

Locust. (photo credit: Yoav Motro/Agriculture Ministry)

Just ahead of the Passover holiday, one of the 10 plagues has infested the fields of Egypt and may be on its way to Israel, the Agriculture Ministry has warned.

While the region is not breaking out in boils or lice, a swarm of tens of millions of locusts has overtaken Egyptian desert land in the past few days, according to the Egyptian government.

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The onslaught of these hopping and highly reproductive insects in a neighbor’s yard has therefore prompted Israel’s Agriculture Ministry to issue a state of “locust alert.” It moved to prepare the country for an invasion after its Plant Protection and Inspection Services received word from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) about the presence of large swarms of locusts in Cairo.

Because of the winds and climactic conditions in the region, there is a chance these locusts may come to Israel, the ministry said. Even more problematic is the fact that the spring season is a season of reproduction – posing a greater risk of locust population explosions during this time.

“All the relevant parties in the areas that are expected to receive locusts in Israel have received updates, and we are in a state of ‘locust alert,’” said Miriam Freund, director of the Plant Protection and Inspection Services.

“For Israel, aerial and ground pesticides are being arranged and are ready to activate if and when we need them,” Freund said. “Plant Protection and Inspection Services of the Agriculture Ministry is constantly in touch with the FAO, whose role involves ongoing monitoring and reporting of the movement of locusts in northern Africa and eastward, through India.”

A statement from the Egyptian Agriculture Ministry on Monday said that teams had been constantly working to eradicate the locusts, with a success rate of between 92 and 94 percent.

The ministry insisted that no damage or economic losses had occurred thus far in Egyptian agriculture due to the pesticides and to the locusts’ lack of reproductive maturity.

Egyptian media outlets such as the Al-Ahram group of newspapers, however, described locusts attacking the El-Obour market in Cairo on Sunday and quoted fearful farmers in Suez.

A local source told The Jerusalem Post that the swarms are estimated to consist of anywhere between 30 million and 120 million locusts thus far, and have appeared in 15 out of Egypt’s 27 governorates.

Due to changing climate and wind patterns, as well as dry crop beds, many of the locusts are appearing in places in which they never have been spotted, the source said.

A particularly bad swarm infested the Cairo market on Saturday, and the northeast Suez villages of El-Raeed and Youssef El-Sabae also received a large concentration of the bugs the following day.

Although many farmers have taken to burning tires as a technique for warding off the insects, the Egyptian Agriculture Ministry has warned against this practice due to fear of widespread fires, the source said. The government there announced that it had established a task force that would help farmers cope with the crisis, but a former ministry official stressed that the locusts continued to pose a serious threat to agriculture, the source added.

The locusts reached Cairo by flying with warm southern and southeastern winds, but the system should move farther east on Tuesday, the FAO alert said. This change in wind pattern could carry the locusts to northeast Egypt and the Sinai, as well as to Israel and Jordan, the organization warned, noting that Lebanon had also been put on alert.

As of January 2005 there have been no locusts in Israel – with the last episode occurring in 2004.

That year the Plant Protection and Inspection Services as well as partner agencies managed to eradicate a swarm that had entered the country from Sinai. With help from the right weather and wind conditions, many did not succeed in entering Israel, while those that did were quickly eliminated, the Agriculture Ministry explained.

A “locust alert” team undergoes courses and training exercises each year, regardless of the emergency level, the ministry stressed.

“When there is a single individual [locust] or isolated individuals, you can kill them independently,” a ministry statement said, “If it is a big swarm, the Agriculture Ministry will get involved and launch pest control operations.”

The desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria in scientific terms) is the most prominent agricultural pest since man began cultivating plants – stemming from the times of the Bible and the Koran, the Agriculture Ministry explained. Mentioned in many ancient writings, the swarms remain a serious enemy in many countries and pose risks of hunger among certain populations, depending on their size, speed and weather conditions, the ministry said.

Overall, global damage from locusts in some years has reached a quarter of a billion dollars due in part to the fact that locusts feed on a wide variety of plant species – including leaves, flowers, fruit, seeds and tree bark, the ministry said. In addition, every locust typically eats its equivalent weight for one day of meals, and the number of locusts can range from 40 to 80 million for each square kilometer of land. One ton of locusts – a small part of a locust pack – can consume enough food meant for 2,500 people, the ministry said.

Meanwhile, their distribution is widespread, with close to 30 million square kilometers of the bugs living in 60 countries.

Desert locusts hail from central Africa, growing in scattered populations over the course of the year and thriving in rainy summer conditions.

Israel rests on the northern border of locust invasions, and there have been 10 invasions here in the past 150 years, according to the Agriculture Ministry. Typically, each invasion has lasted several years, with the most difficult one occurring in the 1950s and lasting an entire decade. During that period, the Agriculture Ministry established the “locust alert” team.

Despite the Agriculture Ministry’s decision to issue a state of “locust alert,” an expert said that “they’re not a threat in any way unless you’re a farmer in Egypt or Sudan right now.”

“What’s coming our way at the moment are just single animals or tens of animals from the edge of what Egypt is experiencing at the moment,” Prof. Amir Ayali, of Tel Aviv University’s zoology department, told the Post on Monday.

While swarms of locusts have been attacking Egyptian lands, Ayali said that the current situation is nothing compared to the previous incident in 2004 – a time in which they also came to Eilat by way of the Red Sea. As for Africa, the ongoing situation pales in comparison to a more enormous locust infestation that affected the continent in the 1980s, he explained.

“There is nothing special to fear,” Ayali added.

Although throughout the day there was a chance of the northern winds carrying the insects to Israel, Ayali said he felt that on Tuesday the winds would change significantly to the east, taking the locusts perhaps to Saudi Arabia instead.

Deeming the threat minimal to Israeli farmers, Ayali praised the Agriculture Ministry for being prepared for any incident that could occur.

“They should be alarmed and on edge,” he said.

In the case that the locust swarms do impact Israelis, Kanat – Insurance Fund for Natural Risks in Agriculture stressed that insurance against natural disasters for the country’s fruit and vegetable growers also covers damages caused by locusts. In the vegetable industry, such insurance covers all damages caused by pests, including locusts, while in the fruit industry, the insurance covers direct damage inflicted upon the fruits themselves, but not to the tree.

“Kanat is following the progress of the locusts and is in continuous contact with the growers,” a statement from the fund said.

Regardless of whether the locusts do end up swarming Israel, Agriculture Ministry staff said they were preparing to deal with any situation, and urged any resident to contact the ministry immediately by phone if he or she encounters a swarm, from 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.

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