Quelea: Environmentalists protest Kenyan government’s move to poison millions of ‘feathered locusts’

Experts champion mechanical control of the birds & other alternative methods like monitoring their breeding & migratory patterns, erecting scarecrows & hiring bird chasers

By Tony Malesi
Published: Friday 20 January 2023
Farmers chasing away quelea birds from their rice fields in Kano Plains, Kisumu County, Kenya. Photo: Tony Malesi.
Farmers chasing away quelea birds from their rice fields in Kano Plains, Kisumu County, Kenya. Photo: Tony Malesi. Farmers chasing away quelea birds from their rice fields in Kano Plains, Kisumu County, Kenya. Photo: Tony Malesi.

Environmentalists have condemned a move by the Kenyan government to poison millions of birds and other wild species that have invaded grain fields in the western part of the east African country.

Although well-intended, the scattergun approach of spraying deadly chemicals in plantations, especially rice fields, to rid them of the invasive and destructive red-billed quelea birds will have unintended harmful effects on other wild species, said the environmentalists.

Also read: Climate resilience: Kenyan farmers are adapting to extreme weather by growing indigenous crops

The environment experts are, instead, championing mechanical control of the birds and other alternative methods like monitoring their breeding and migratory patterns, erecting scarecrows and hiring bird chasers to guard the farms.

The number of destructive birds in the rice-growing region is estimated to be over 10 million and only deadly chemical sprays can control them, according to government officials.

“The birds are so far responsible for the destruction of rice estimated to be worth millions of shillings, with more still in danger,” said the ministry of agriculture in a statement.

Our technical teams have established that about 300 acres of rice fields have been destroyed by the quelea birds. There is a potential of another 2,000 acres being destroyed unless action is taken immediately, the ministry added.

Also read: Climate crisis in Africa exposes real cause of hunger – colonial food systems that leave people more vulnerable

Environment experts have condemned the move, saying it will destroy the rice belt’s ecosystem and lead to critical biodiversity loss.

Harsh drought in east Africa has destroyed grasslands, where birds source for food, experts added.This has resulted in the birds, especially quelea species, invading grain fields and putting thousands of acres of rice under threat.

Raphael Kapiyo, the associate dean at the Maseno University School of Agriculture and Environmental sciences, faulted the move, citing environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity.

Kapiyo told this reporter:

Use of deadly chemicals to kill the birds is wrong. Besides killing rare birds and other wild species, the chemicals will affect the soil the farmers rely on to produce the grain and even nearby water bodies or grazing fields. So many organisms rely on the wetlands for survival.

One quelea consumes approximately 10 grams of grain daily, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Estimated crop losses attributed to the birds amount to $50m annually, a 2021 FAO report noted.

Farmers in western Kenya’s rice-growing belt will likely lose over 50 tonnes of grain to the birds.

Despite environmentalists emphasising that fenthion — the organophosphate pesticide used by the government — is toxic to non-target organisms, including humans, most farmers, who called upon the government to intervene in the issue, want the initiative to go on.

“Honestly speaking, we are likely to harvest nothing here at this rate. The birds feed constantly both day and night. The destruction is so massive for a single day. Those opposed to the use of chemicals have no idea the extent of destruction,” lamented Alice Akinyi, a worker in the rice fields in Kano Plains, Kisumu County.

Also read: Increasing population, demand for food in Africa need urgent attention: Experts

Some farmers have begun abandoning rice farming because of losses courtesy of invasive birds and other challenges in grain production, which have worsened in the last three years.

The birds no longer fear scarecrows. They only fear for a few days and start perching them and invading grain plantations after realising scarecrows pose no threat, said David Olang’o, a farmer cultivating rice for over seven years in Kano Plains.

“Hiring someone to chase the birds is costly; a worker alone will demand over 5,000 Kenyan shillings ($40) per month, yet you need close to 10 people to keep running all over the place chasing away the birds on one acre,” said Olang’o.

A farmer here owns several acres of land and that method and others, like the use of scarecrows, is not sustainable, Olang’o added.

Rice is now possibly the second major staple food in Kenya and east Africa after maize, yet it’s under threat. Rice consumption in Kenya has nearly doubled to 23 kilograms per person per year from 12 kg in 2008, according to the ministry of agriculture and Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.

Kenya’s current annual rice consumption is approximated to be 800,000 metric tonnes against a production capacity of about 180,000 metric tonnes, said Mary Mutembei, an official at the ministry of agriculture, in a recent press statement.

“We heavily import mostly from Pakistan to plug this deficit,” the official added.

Also read: Rice, integral to Madagascar, may be hastening the decline of its unique biodiversity; here is how

Food security experts, including the National Irrigation Authority Managing Director Joel Tanui, believe the country and region could be staring at a cereal crisis without appropriate action to curb the losses.

“Huge sections of rice fields have been abandoned, with some farmers decrying the losses. Others now harvest premature rice, fearing the birds. This results in rice grain with aflatoxin, which is dangerous to consumers. We must have an interim intervention,” said Tanui, who is also an agronomist.

The programme director at Nature Kenya, Paul Gacheru, condemned the poisoning of the quelea birds, citing unintended consequences.

“Unless well-informed, the use of the chemicals will end up harming both the birds and non-targeted species. Besides environmental contamination, it will also lead to mass deaths of other animal species due to poor site management after spraying,” Gacheru told this reporter.

The farmers must be well-educated on alternative quelea control, lest the move ends up with mass deaths of scavenging animals that feed on the carcasses of poisoned birds, he warned.

The FAO and the UN Environment Programme always urge farmers to adhere to the Rotterdam Convention, which aims at, among others, reducing risks associated with hazardous chemicals in food production.

The two concerned international bodies have been considering listing fenthion among pesticides and industrial chemicals whose use is banned or severely restricted due to their effects on the environment or human health.

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