Kenya Air Force Supports Management of Locust Invasion in Kenya: Role of No.2 SQN

Y12 utility aircraft fitted with spray pods at Wajir Air Base.

Y12 utility aircraft fitted with spray pods at Wajir Air Base.

Desert locust invaded Kenya from the countries of Ethiopia and Somalia in late 2019. Reportedly, this is the worst invasion in the country in 70 years. According to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Red sea breeding is in progress and hopper groups and bands are present on the northern coast of Sudan, SaudiArabia, Eritrea and Yemen. Mature swarms are laying eggs in Sudan and Eritrea while adult groups have formed in Yemen and Saudi Arabia…some of which are laying eggs. Ground teams have treated more than 23000ha in Saudi Arabia and 7000ha in Sudan. In Oman, breeding is in progress as in Indo –Pakistan border there are immature swarms in places where heavy rains caused flooding. These developments would have a great impact on the food security of the regions where these huge swarms of locust invade thus required a multi-national approach in dealing with the threat.

Map showing migration and effect of pesticide invasion in Africa and Asian continents  (Source FAO 13 January 2020)

Map showing migration and effect of pesticide invasion in Africa and Asian continents
(Source FAO 13 January 2020)

In view of the above, the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF), within its secondary mandate to help civil authorities in times of disasters when called upon, was tasked to integrate with a multi-agency team lead by the Ministry of Agriculture, concerned organizations and privately contacted firms in helping to mitigate the breeding and spread of the desert locusts in Kenya.

Kenya Air Force (KAF) was tasked to spearhead the spraying duties in North Eastern Province (NEP) regions of Kenya.  The Kenya Air Force team linked up with counterparts from ministry of Agriculture at Kilimo house to plan on the course of action in checking the invasion. They resolved to have teams embedded in Isiolo, Wajir and Marsabit, attached with aircrafts to complement the ground teams from the ministry in spraying the pests. These teams were headed by a representative of the Ministry of Agriculture and subject matter experts, who would coordinate with the pilots (from KDF, KWS, Red Locust International and private contractors) attached to them and local governments in checking the invasion by scouting the swarms and actual spraying.

On 19th January 2020, Kenya Air Force deployed one aircraft to base in Wajir Air Base for spraying of the swarms in Mandera, Wajir and Garissa counties. The aircraft airlifted drums of the pesticide to Isiolo and Wajir to be used by the aircrafts detached in these locations for the exercise.

Y12 utility aircraft fitted with spray pods at Wajir Air Base.

Y12 utility aircraft fitted with spray pods at Wajir Air Base.

The Y12 aircraft has been fitted with two Micronair spray pod system that enable it to be converted to spraying role in a matter of hours. Two self-contained spray pods are mounted on the standard wing pylons, thus eliminating any need for structural modification of the aircraft. The entire system is external to the fuselage; hence there is no contamination of chemical in the cabin.  The Y12 aircraft is ideal in spraying as it is capable of carrying 370ltrs of spray and can reach far flanged targets in a relatively shorter time as compared to other aircrafts doing the same. The Y12 aircraft also has a longer flight endurance that allows it to stay overhead the target spraying for longer periods.

This aircraft in a weeks’ time had sprayed areas of Shaba, Eldas,Habaswein,Diff, Tarbaj  andAbdi-summit , north of Garissa town. This was coverage of over 10000ha. The total amount of pesticide used amounted to 3000ltrs. The spraying involved initial tracing of the swarm movements from entry points, which in that region, were from Ethiopia and Somalia. These swarms were huge, covering areas close and over 40sq km each. Once the swarms were identified at entry points on the border, Paraveterinary officers in conjunction with local leaders, locals and helicopter of International Red Locust Organization, would trace their movements to the point they rest in the evening. They would then report the last rest position grid coordinates   of the swarms through their chain of command, to the Ministry of agriculture representative heading the team in the area of concern, who in turn would relay the same info to the Y12 pilots. The Y12 pilots would run these grids through KAF Headquarter for clearance and once they receive green light, they would launch to spray by first light.

Y12 aircraft spraying above swarms in Eldas,West of Wajir town.

Y12 aircraft spraying above swarms in Eldas,West of Wajir town.

The actual spraying demands a team of skilful pilots and technicians on board. The pilots have to accurately identify the swarms on the vegetation below, and fly at a height of 3m above with a swath of 55ft.  During the spray, pilots have to factor in effects of wind, temperatures and speed of the aircraft while releasing the pesticide. Strong winds and high temperatures negatively affect the distribution of the droplets from the boom sprayer to the target swarm.

The chemicals used for this spray are Ultra Low Volume pesticides, which are released to the atmosphere in microns. These chemicals are dangerous to aquatic life; hence spraying above water bodies is prohibited. Timings for the spray exercise are hence critical. The best time to do an effective spray is advised to be in the mornings when the temperatures are below 22 degrees Celsius and the air is relatively calm. This limits times of spray to early mornings and late evenings.  During these times, the locusts are docile and the recommended altitude of 3m above the target when spraying can be achieved. If temperatures rise above this, the locust’s wings get dry and they start to fly. This poses great danger to aircraft handling and airframe.  If an aircraft encounters a swarm airborne, they blur the screen once hit and hinder both forward horizontal and vertical visibility to zero. The pilots can only view through the side windows. This makes flying approach and low level handling difficult. Swarms hitting the airframe of the aircraft can easily be engulfed in the engines thus causing structural damage that can be hazardous. This calls for effective prior coordination and planning for an effective spray to occur within the safe timings.

How effective have the sprays been so far? Well this question is best answered by an expert. Mr John Ngondi, a scientist at the International Red Locust Control organization (Ndola, Zambia)who in this task, is attached at Wajir Airport with crew and a helicopter from his organization. They have been complementing the works of the county government and KDF in checking the spread of the locusts. His team have done great works in bringing in expertise and also, with their bell helicopter, have done lots of scouting, monitoring of the swarms and reporting the after-spray-effects done by the Y12 aircraft. He says that the efforts in place have slowed the spread of the locusts in Wajir County. He commends works by the Kenya Military in these efforts of management of locusts and their promptness to hit target swarms on very short notice, even in less ideal conditions. Mr John Ngondi states that an effective spray is one which eliminates over 70% of the swarm. If this, for example, is done by the team in Wajir, and the swarm survivors and sprayed again by the team in Isiolo, then total annihilation of the locust is possible. He further states that the current problem has been caused by lack of control of the pests in war torn Somalia and Yemen, where they breed freely. They then find their way to Kenya in large numbers.

Initial size of swarm on entry size of swarm after 1st spray          size of swarm after 2nd spray Pictorial representation of effect of swarms after pesticide spray

Initial size of swarm on entry size of swarm after 1st spray size of swarm after 2nd spray
Pictorial representation of effect of swarms after pesticide spray

He further states that invasion might persist up to June/July 2020 and may even worsen if the locusts start breeding within the country. This epidemic calls for an international action as one country, or let alone few countries, are not capable of stopping the advance of these swarms. The swarms move by the wind and can cover over 100km in a single day, with no regards to boarders and boundaries. They can clear vegetation of large areas they occupy in few hours, hence pausing food security threats in the region in a very short while. It further should be noted that the man hours, airframe hours and pesticide are expensive for one country to manage. On a positive note, this invasion has received worldwide attention and FAO has set aside huge sums of money to help countries affected check this infestation as it poses a security threat to food stability in the region.

Nevertheless, Kenya Air Force remains ready and alert, to provide the platforms and men to perform this task to satisfactory standards whenever called upon.