‘Overtaken by Aliens’: India Faces Another Plague as Locusts Swarm

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NEW DELHI — Magan Doodi, a groundskeeper at a golf course in Jaipur, was making his rounds earlier this week when he saw the sky suddenly turn a weird pink.

It wasn’t some quirk of the weather. It was locusts — millions of them, “like a spreading bedsheet,” he said.

“The locusts have attacked the golf course!” Mr. Doodi yelled into his cellphone during the battle Monday morning. “It’s man versus locusts!”

As if India needed more challenges, with coronavirus infections steadily increasing, a heat wave hitting the capital, a recent killer cyclone and 100 million people out of work, the country now has to fight off a new problem: a locust invasion.

Scientists say it’s the worst attack in 25 years and these locusts are different.

“This time the attack is by very young locusts who fly for longer distances, at faster speeds, unlike adults in the past who were sluggish and not so fast,” said K.L. Gurjar, the deputy director of India’s Locust Warning Organization.

The locusts were flying in from Iran and Pakistan, blanketing half a dozen states in western and central India. Because most of the crops were recently harvested, the hungry swarms have buzzed into urban areas, eager to devour bushes and trees, carpeting whatever surface they land on.

ImageLocusts on a tree during an invasion last year.
Credit…Sam Panthaky/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On Monday, Jaipur, a sprawling city of 4 million and the biggest in the state of Rajasthan, was besieged. A blizzard of bugs flew over concrete buildings and the wealthier neighborhoods, swooping in on trees and plants, crossing graveyards and jewelry markets, attracted to the manicured golf course in the heart of the city.

After he saw what was happening, Mr. Doodi, the groundskeeper, yelled out to the caddies and other key personnel, urging them to make whatever loud noise they could to drive the bugs away. Some grabbed firecrackers. Others steel plates to bang on. Another person ran up to the roof of a maintenance building and started thumping on empty plastic containers, like drums.

Residents clamored to protect themselves and their flora, spilling onto the streets banging plates with spoons and jumping into parked cars to honk horns.

“I got out of my room and came out on my terrace at around 10 a.m. and saw a long shadow on the ground,” recalled Nikhil Misra, a lawyer in Jaipur. “I just stood still. It was something I had never seen in my lifetime.”

“I looked up and saw a cloud, not the cloud that gives you rainfall, but a cloud of locusts, thousands and thousands of them hovering over my head,” he said. “It was a silent attack. It was a strange kind of fear, as if being overtaken by aliens.”

Image

Credit…Deepak Sharma/Associated Press

Scientists say that this outbreak, similar to recent outbreaks in East Africa, is driven by the same factors: unusually warm weather and more rain. They blame climate change.

“All this started in late 2019, when there were warm waters in the western Indian oceans,” said Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune. “These waters triggered lot of rains over the East African regions and the Arabian Peninsula. This seems to have triggered an ideal condition for breeding of locusts.”

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The movement of the swarms depends on the winds, which are blowing west to east and a little south right now. That could put the swarms in India’s bushy center very soon.

Already, they have overrun one of India’s renowned tiger reserves, Panna National Park, covering the trees in straight lines of countless insects, like a twitching bark.

The Indian government wants to tackle this regionally and has offered to set aside some of its differences with Pakistan to provide the neighboring country with pesticide to spray on its side of the border. India has made the same offer to Iran, which responded positively, Indian officials said.

Indian scientists said that in a single day, a modest locust swarm can travel 200 kilometers and eat as much food as about 35,000 people.

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