- After years of drought, a heavy locust outbreak is now developing in Mauritania, threatening to stop the recovery of subsistence agriculture here. The locusts already are reported to be out of control and spreading further northwards into Western Sahara.
The so-called Locust Group of the UN food agency, FAO, is thoroughly monitoring the movements and spread of the pest in Mauritania and three more Sahelian countries; Niger, Mali and Sudan. The simultaneous desert locust outbreaks in these four countries could threaten crops and food security in the entire northern half of Africa.
In Mauritania, the spread of desert locusts has gone that far that the FAO team fears it is too late to halt the outbreak. The usually solitary insects have started grouping into high density swarms - a common sign of an outbreak - from several cores at the same time.
According to the UN agency, vegetation has dried out much quicker than expected in Mauritania, causing locusts to concentrate in three main areas. Adult desert locusts are now forming dense groups of up to 40 insects per square metre. They are causing an immediate threat to the country's small-scale agriculture and livestock sector, which still has to recover from last year's disastrous drought.
East and south-east of the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott - the heartland of the country's troubled agricultural sector - desert locusts are reported spreading. "Adult groups at densities up to 9,000 per hectare were seen copulating east of Nouakchott," according to FAO.
A second core of locusts has been observed concentrating northwest of Moudjeria, some 400 kilometres east of Nouakchott, in the centre of Mauritania's wet season pastures. Here, the density of hoppers - young, wingless locusts - was said to be "up to three per bush".
The highest desert locust density however was found in the third core area, east of Akjoujt, a desert town 200 kilometres south of Western Sahara. Around Akjoujt, adults were "forming dense groups" of up to 40 locusts per square metre. These adults last week were reported to be in their egg laying process.
The Akjoujt core of locusts will be the most difficult to control, if that still is possible. The swarm has already spread to an extensive area with virtually no infrastructure and getting close to a conflict area.
The northernmost observation of the Akjoujt swarm is 150 kilometres from the desert town, only tens of kilometres from the border with Western Sahara. "Solitarious adults at a density of 600 per hectare" had been observed here, and the FAO group expected some locusts to move into Western Sahara "in the coming weeks."
Crossing the border into Western Sahara, the locusts will get into a no-man's-land, theoretically controlled by the Sahrawi liberation movement Polisario before reaching Moroccan-occupied territory. Hindering a spread into Western Sahara would close to impossible given the security situation at the border.
The FAO group further fears that, if the desert locust swarm first gets big enough to start migrating, it will be impossible to stop. From Western Sahara, the locusts' search for vegetation could lead them onto Morocco and Algeria, or even Spain.
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