British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Andrew Seager
How to Kill Locusts
Locust Swarm
In the 1940s, before systemic insecticides became readily available, desert locusts, the ones he has encountered in the northern Sudan - or to be more precise, their hoppers - were indeed killed with a bait of Paris Green mixed with bran. Paris Green, I was told by Mr Arthur Staniforth, is sodium arsenite. This mixture was referred to by Somalis as 'sun' or poison, which indeed it was. Livestock inevitably ate some of it and it killed them.

I first got involved with locust control in what was then the British Somaliland Protectorate, and is now the, alas unrecognised. Republic of Somaliland, in the early 1950s. I was an agricultural officer who for his work had to trek extensively in the farming areas; we walked or rode horses or mules, always off what passed then for roads in the farming areas and therefore knew all the areas where crops were grown. Whatever the farmers wanted to take to market went on camelback, not carts, and therefore not having roads was not a major problem - then.

How to Kill Locusts
Locust Swarm Map
By the 1950s the bait for controlling desert locust hoppers was gammexane, not Paris Green, mixed with bran. We spread it where either we knew that the adult locusts laid their eggs, or where hoppers were spotted by patrols. This mixture did not hurt livestock. However, for many years there was considerable objection to its use by the pastoralists. All of us who were called upon to spread it had actually to eat some of the mixture while being carefully observed by the people, to demonstrate that it is not poisonous to humans and animals, before they allowed us to spread it. Baiting did not control the adult locusts, who flew and settled to feed on vegetation above ground level - on trees and the growing crops which could not be baited. They laid their eggs and the inevitably escaping hoppers matured and provided hoppers for the next outbreak.

How to Kill Locusts
Desert Locust Airspray Unit
By the mid-1950s, a Desert Locust Airspray Unit was established. The planes, carrying a powerful insecticide which, as must be emphasised, did not harm any warmblooded creature, flew off at first light when the locusts were settled on trees and on the ground and could not fly because of the dew on their wings. The places where they settled for the night were spotted by ground patrols or by late afternoon reconnaissance flights. This was a most effective control. By the late 1950s the desert locust ceased to be a major problem. But this did not, and cannot in the future, last forever.

The desert locust has a gregarious and solitary phase. When in the latter phase, numbers congregating are limited and while naturally eating green vegetation they are not numerous enough to be a menace. While they do not form swarms, they become a core for a future outbreak when they turn into the gregarious phase. All this is contained in their scientific name - Scitsocerca gregaria. They turned gregarious, i.e. formed swarms in 1978 and I am told, but have not been able to obtain details, also more recently.

In 1978, by which time I was in the World Bank in Washington, we experienced the first serious outbreak since the 1950s. One day my boss’s secretary came running into my office with an armful of books. She told me there was to be a meeting on desert locusts in about 5 minutes in an office some 10 minutes away from mine and the boss (an agriculturist who had spent all his pre-World Bank time in West Africa where the desert locust was unknown) wanted me to attend it in his place: he guessed that since I worked in the dry parts of East Africa in the 1950s I might know something about them. The secretary did not permit me to read the armful of books before I left, and would I please hurry.

At the meeting I explained how I got there instead of my boss. The Chairman opened the meeting: “Gentlemen, we are here to discuss the problem of the desert locust. There has been a new outbreak. Has any of you ever seen one?” Deadly silence. None of the people in the room had served in the dry parts of Africa in the 1940s and ‘50s. I said, “I have seen about a thousand million of them and plead guilty to murdering very many”. Excellent, would I please tell them all about it. I told them what I remembered; fortunately I managed to recall the names of two experts who have done much research on them and have published papers. The Bank financed the revival of the airspray unit. They were successful and I have not heard of desert locust problems for many years, but I am told there has been a recent outbreak.

map of British Somaliland
1948 Somaliland Protectorate Map
Colony Profile
British Somaliland
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 92: October 2006
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