HONG KONG—Swarms of desert locusts have devastated crops in East Africa, hit the Middle East and moved into South Asia. They’re breeding fast thanks to changes in global climate patterns that have brought about major cyclones and heavy rains, and they are feeding off human food supplies across continents.
So far, India has managed to prevent a swarm of biblical proportions from spilling over into Bangladesh, Burma, and then China—where the coronavirus has already paralyzed much of the country’s activity. But it’s not clear how long that line will hold.
Eastern Africa has been hit the hardest by the xanthic bugs, with fields in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia ravaged by 360 billion locusts. Swarms can be city-sized, and one of the largest—located in Kenya—covers about 37 miles by 25 miles. It is so dense that it turns daylight to darkness for anyone caught within.
Alarmist headlines are proliferating, too, many of them drawing parallels with the plagues in scripture. “Bible coming to life?” asked the Jerusalem Post. The swarms appear in the Old Testament, most notably in Exodus as one of the plagues Moses calls down on Egypt, which also is referenced in the Quran. In the New Testament locusts are associated with Revelation 9:3, where they emerge in ferocious swarms that also have the sting of scorpions.
Allusions to the Apocalypse aside, the real life potential for disaster is huge…..
For now, the Himalayan range is acting as a natural barrier for China, insulating its southwestern border from the scourge that is in Pakistan. But the locusts could bank into Southeast Asia, flowing through Bangladesh and up into Burma, landing in China’s Yunnan province, hitting a country that is already locked down because of the coronavirus’ rapid spread.
As fears rise, the state-run media outlet Global Times has been offering ludicrous consolation to the public, claiming that the desert locusts are “eaten by ducks, fried for food,” and “not a threat to China.” And the international arm of state-run CCTV even released a bizarre video of “duck troops” amassing at the border. But the species of locust that is on the country’s doorstep emits phenylacetonitrile, a foul-smelling secretion that is meant to deter predators. Birds typically do not seek them out as a food source.
Spokespersons for China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs claim that there is a “very low risk” of locust plagues hitting China, but a researcher at the Beijing-headquartered Institute of Plant Protection of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences suggests more caution.
The agriculture expert, Zhang Zehua, said that Yunnan province (which borders Burma), Guangxi (an autonomous region east of Yunnan), and Sichuan province (north of Yunnan) could be affected in June or July if the plagues are not brought under control in neighboring countries.
Zhang may be right, at least according to India’s Ministry of Agriculture, which issued a notice saying that it expects 200,000 square kilometers (77,200 square miles) of farmland to be blanketed by locusts in June during the onset of monsoon season—when conditions are perfect for ravenous insects to breed.
For now, whether the summer may bring another catastrophe to China depends chiefly on Delhi and Karachi’s efforts to exterminate a storm of insects in a race against the seasons.