Plague threat as millions of locusts swarm into Cyprus

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Tens of millions of locusts have descended on Cyprus and the island now has less than 10 days to act before the invasion turns into a self-perpetuating plague.

Tens of millions of locusts have descended on Cyprus and the island now has less than 10 days to act before the invasion turns into a self-perpetuating plague.

The insect in question is the desert locust, dreaded among farmers for its voracious appetite for greenery of all kinds. In just one day, a ton of them can consume the food for 2,500 people. They are pink in colour, making them resemble an aggressive-looking flying prawn.

They reached Cyprus some days ago as the advanced guard of the infestations that have been blighting North Africa this season. Warm winds from the south blew them in, but it will now take a considerable effort to stamp them out before they start breeding, estimated to occur in just over a week.

Agriculture ministry director Antonis Constantinou said the locusts had not reached the full stage of maturity to start laying eggs. "We have to reduce the population to prevent them maturing and laying eggs here," he told Cyprus radio. Desert locusts take about 45 days to mature.

Cyprus's limited agriculture sector will not be ruined as long as the insects remained confined, as they are now, to the island's west. Authorities started aerial spraying with pesticides on Thursday, intent - if nothing else - on keeping the locusts away from the more fertile central and eastern plains. Andreas Kazantis, district head of agriculture for Paphos, told the Cyprus Mail yesterday: "There are millions of them and it looks like we will be tackling them on a daily basis for the time being."

The island's infestation is the first by the desert locust, or its relation the red locust, in living memory. It coincides with the arrival of locusts in southern coastal areas of Turkey and in Israel and parts of the Lebanon - in the latter case, for the first time in 100 years. This summer there were small numbers of locusts in Italy, and a brief but destructive incursion into Spain.

West and North Africa, meanwhile, are suffering the worst locust plagues since the mid-1980s. They have caused damage in Algeria down to Gambia, with especially extensive destruction in Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal.

Last month, the UN assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland, said that the swarms of locusts ravaging crops in Africa were "a much greater threat to livelihoods than any of the wars in the African region at the moment, Darfur included". He added: "We are now seeing hundreds of billions of locusts creating havoc all over northern Africa."

He warned then that, despite warnings, governments had been slow to respond to an appeal for donations towards the cost of swiftly eradicating the locusts. At the beginning of October he said: "This should never have been allowed to happen ... If we lose the battle in the next five weeks, we will have a tenfold increase in the locust swarms ... Tens of millions of people in the poorest countries will have no food, no livelihood, because locusts have eaten everything in that area."