Migratory Army Worms Could Reach Uganda - Experts Top story


In short
There are fears that army worms ravaging the maize crop in Zambia and parts of Southern Africa could migrate to East Africa. The fear is premised on the fact that the army worms are migratory nature.

 There are fears that army worms ravaging the maize crop in Zambia and parts of Southern Africa could migrate to East Africa. The fear is premised on the fact that the army worms are migratory nature.

African army worm, Spodoptera exempta, is a caterpillar pest that attacks crops like maize, wheat, sorghum, millet, rice and pasture grasses.

Studies have found that armyworm outbreaks occur throughout sub - Saharan Africa but mostly originate in primary outbreak areas in Tanzania and Kenya.

The outbreak in Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa includes both the native African armyworm  and the fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) -- a non-indigenous, or alien, species that originated in the Americas and is even more destructive.

The fall army worm outbreak in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi is believed to have been triggered by the drought that hit the region last year.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation ( FAO ) Sub-Regional Coordinator  for Southern Africa, David Phiri, said in a statement  that the situation was constantly evolving.

"The situation remains fluid. Preliminary reports indicate possible presence (of the pest) in Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has positively identified the presence of the pest while the rest are expected to release test results soon," he said.

Though panic caused by the worm in Southern Africa is yet to reach East African Community, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the International Red Locust Control Organisation for Central and Southern Africa are organising an emergency regional meeting of key stakeholders in an effort contain the spread.

A Ugandan field epidemiologist, who has confronted out breaks of Ebola and murburg and is knowledgeable about migratory pests did not rule out the possibility of the fall army worms spreading to Uganda. The former Ministry of Health official who asked for anonymity says there's need for some form of preparedness in East Africa.  

Dr.  Chris Omongo, an entomologist and cassava expert at Uganda's National Crops Resources Research Institute in an interview did not rule out the possibility of the worms reaching Uganda or its neighbours.

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Millet and maize cultivating farmers can easily identify the warms because they are basically caterpillars that "march" across the landscape in large groups feasting on young crops. 

In East Africa, army worm outbreaks are considered a serious problem in nine out of ten years. In major outbreak years army worm can cause massive losses to staple grain crops.

Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania and South Africa are grouped among primary ten outbreak areas.
The number of outbreaks varies considerably between countries and from year to year, but there are some clear patterns.

Studies have shown that  when the number of outbreaks in Tanzania is high, they also tend to be high in neighbouring Kenya which is due in part to the worms migrating between the two countries.

During the long dry season, army worms occur at very low densities in coastal regions, and other areas where green vegetation is available all year round.

But Dr. Omongo  says traditionally, farmers always expect army worms as the rain seasons begin.

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Dr. Omongo had referred Uganda Radio Network to Ministry of Agriculture for official comment about what is being done in case of the outbreak. Okasai Opolot, the Director Crop Protection in the Ministry of Agriculture replied in a text message that he was attending a meeting when contacted for comment. 

Georg Goergen, an entomologist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, also researcher on the army worms has indicated that the worms have spread much faster than expected from Nigeria, Togo and now to Southern Africa. He suspects that they could spread further in Africa. "The next step will be countries such as Kenya and Tanzania... I don't know if it can cross the Sahara."