What flies at 20mph and eats 30,000 tons a day?

What flies at 20mph and eats 30,000 tons a day? Author examines locust swarms throughout time

  • Colin Everard discusses the surveillance of locust plagues in a new nature book
  • As a young man in his twenties, he worked for Desert Locust Control in Nairobi
  • He was responsible for locust surveillance over more than 10,000 square miles
  • Residents at the time spoke of swarms similar sized to Greater London 
  • Colin says controlling locust plagues resulted in sparing people from starvation 
  • Today, locust swarms are monitored using satellite tracking 



by Colin Everard (I.B. Tauris £30, 288 pp)

How do you deal with a swarm of locusts as big as Greater London? In Nairobi, where Colin Everard worked for Desert Locust Control (DLC) in the 1950s, residents spoke of swarms of similar size passing over the city.

Sometimes they would blot out the sun for two days. The railway system was brought to a halt: wheels simply spun on the rails, unable to make proper contact because of the dead locusts ‘squelching beneath them’.

Each square mile of a swarm could contain 15 million locusts. A swarm travelled at up to 20 mph and might need to eat between 30 and 40 thousand tons of food a day. The devastation visited upon crops was immense. People starved as a consequence.

Colin Everard who was once responsible for the surveillance of locust swarms over more than 10,000 square miles speaks about controlling locust plagues in a new book (file image)

Today those responsible for locust control make use of satellite tracking to monitor the swarms. Things were very different in Everard’s day, as he describes in this intriguing memoir of his life with the DLC.

Everard, now in his late eighties, first visited Africa as a 19-year-old on national service, seconded to work in Somaliland with the DLC. Early attempts to kill off the locusts had not been successful. Arsenic had been mixed with bran to poison the insects, which unfortunately had also destroyed livestock.

Unsurprisingly, despite reassurances that arsenic would no longer be used, tribesmen were unwilling to let the DLC try again.

One of Everard’s colleagues told him: ‘On the one hand, we are here to control locusts; on the other, we are working amongst people who will kill us if we go about our work.’ As he went on, with British understatement, it was ‘not exactly a pleasant scenario’.

Despite this, after his national service ended, Everard returned to Somaliland and signed up for a permanent job with the DLC.

It was still dangerous work. On one excursion into the desert he and his workfellows were confronted by a group of chanting tribesmen carrying spears. ‘What are they chanting?’ Everard asked. ‘We must kill the Outsider! We must kill the Outsider!’ he was told. The DLC men only escaped when one of them pointed a rifle at the spear-carriers.

DESERT LOCUST PLAGUES by Colin Everard (I.B. Tauris £30, 288 pp)

Other encounters were friendlier. One reconnaissance journey took Everard to the Somali coast where he stayed with an Italian lighthouse keeper living in lonely isolation.

In the morning, under the mistaken impression that all Englishmen began their day with such a breakfast, the Italian fed him with a giant omelette of 12 eggs.

Everard visited the man again four years later, and asked how many visitors he had had since their last meeting. The Italian thought for a while. ‘One’, he said eventually.

This book summons up a lost world at the end of the colonial era. Everard, a young man in his twenties, was responsible for locust surveillance over an area of more than 10,000 square miles.

Controlling locust plagues resulted, as he writes, in ‘sparing millions of people the horrors of hunger and starvation.’

It’s one of the great unsung achievements of the 20th century and Everard pays it a fitting tribute. 


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