It sounds like a scene ripped from a hysterical sci-fi thriller — thousands of people fleeing their homes as an army of ravenous caterpillars take over town. But that’s exactly what’s happening in northern Liberia, in west Africa. Millions of caterpillars, believed to be related to the devastating crop pest the african armyworm are munching through fields and marching into homes, causing many people to abandon their houses until the flood of caterpillars recedes. There are also public health concerns as the sheer quantity of caterpillars means massive amounts of excrement is washing into rivers and other fresh water supplies.
“We are afraid. You see here, the caterpillars are all over and there is nowhere to sleep. I am leaving with my children to a different community,” Mary Tolbert who lives in Gbarpolu County told AllAfrica..
Both Dr. Sizi Subah, deputy agriculture minister for technical services in Liberia and Winfred Hammond, a senior entomologist with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, have said that the recent and unprecedented caterpillar outbreaks may be linked to disruptions in the rainy and dry seasons, fueled by climate change.
“The biggest concern is the fact that this is becoming a regular occurrence,” Hammond told AllAfrica. “It’s about time we seriously consider putting in place early warning systems and looked at how we can contain or check this problem from becoming a big national concern.”
In 2009, a state of emergency was declared as a similar caterpillar outbreak, the worst seen in over 30 years, devastated coffee and cocoa farms. There were so many of the pests that year that they actually clogged wells and waterways with excrement. The pests also attacked key food crops like rice, cassava, and maze, exacerbating the fragile food security situation in Liberia which is still recovering from years of civil war. In all, about 80 towns in Liberia were affected by the plague, which spilled over into neighboring Guinea. According to the Liberia News Agency Lofa Correspondent, pesticide-spraying teams have been sent into the affected regions to combat the current outbreak. These actions have sparked new concerns of further water contamination. The Agriculture Ministry has also advised infested communities to cut and burn trees and brush around the town to slow the invasion.