Days of the locust: our continuing battle with an ancient plague

23 March 2019

9:00 AM

23 March 2019

9:00 AM

Carried on monsoon winds across the Red Sea, vast swarms of desert locusts have posed a deadly threat to the people of the Horn of Africa for millennia. One swarm can number billions of insects, cover a 1,000-square-mile area and consume 30–40,000 tonnes of food per day — all of which makes the desert locust well deserving of its collective noun ‘plague’.

Much brain-power has been dedicated to the controlling of these insects, whose swarms can lead, and have led to, famines. Methods of control have included the digging of trenches to catch hoppers (juvenile locusts) and, later, the aerial spraying of chemical and fungal insecticides. In the early 1950s, however, laying poison-laced bran in the path of marching hoppers was the method most commonly used. Hundreds of staff were employed by the Desert Locust Control, the organisation responsible for controlling locusts across Africa and the Middle East, to orchestrate this effort. Among them was Colin Everard, whose involvement with the DLC’s work in the Horn of Africa and Kenya between 1950 and 1963 is the subject of this book.

Everard details the life-cycle of desert locusts: egg pods buried in ‘soft sand or loam’, marching hoppers that ‘eat their own weight in food daily’ and, finally, the fully grown, airborne adults, which can travel ‘200 miles or more in one day’. These devour crops and bring trains to a halt as ‘squelching locusts [nullify] the contact between the wheels and the rails’. Everard’s passages on locusts are interesting, as are those on the technological developments — including the introduction of reconnaissance and pesticide-spraying aircraft that brought the locust problem under control by the early 1960s; however, neither of these topics is the focus of his book.

What takes up most page-space, instead, are descriptions of adventure. Everard’s searches for swarms lead him into uncharted wildernesses and tribal territories. He describes surprise night-time encounters with lions (‘when I had looked up expecting to see the stars, my sight was blocked by the massive hulk of the cat’), hyena attacks and human confrontations; spears pass his head ‘at lightning speed’ and stones are slung alongside chants of ‘kill, kill’. One story has the author and two colleagues driving on treacherous desert roads in a race against a ‘35-square-mile swarm of locusts’. In another, Everard, who is especially tall, is made to lie flat in the bottom of a precariously balanced canoe, so that it does not apsize and throw its occupants into shark-infested waters.

His stories, which he calls his ‘unsought adventures’, are told with the gusto and gravitas of the kind of seasoned adventurer that he assures us he is not. But there is a self-celebratory tone to Everard’s voice, which will irritate some. He boasts that fluency in Somali, a language ‘usually impossible for the European ear’, presented ‘little problem’ to him. A stand-off with native tribesmen reads like the memoirs of a war hero — ‘When I was about ten yards from them, one raised his spear… Who would strike first?’ — despite the fact that Everard and his men are armed with rifles, and their adversaries (whose territory they are on) have only spears and slings. Certain passages, also, make for uncomfortable reading; Everard refers to a group of tribesmen as ‘the horde’ and to their shouts as ‘venomous shrieks’. The evocation of savagery and zoomorphism to describe native tribesmen is troubling to read in a book published in 2019.

In his introduction, Everard states that ‘above all, this book is about the desert locust and our efforts in the mid-20th century to control it’. However, beginning with recollections of his childhood and ending with a meditation on how he perceives danger, it reads more like a memoir. While it is interesting to hear about Everard’s adventures — particularly in rare moments when they demonstrate how the DLC’s operations sometimes clash with tribal customs (one tribe believes that locusts are good omens of rain and, therefore, shouldn’t be killed) — we learn comparatively little about the desert locust as an animal or its cultural and historical relevance in the region. Readers who are interested in the broader picture of desert locusts and locust control beyond Everard’s personal experiences will find that this book raises more questions than it answers.

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