Kenyan rice farmers fight quelea birds in Kisumu

  • By Dorcas Wangira
  • BBC News, Kisumu

image source, Getty Images

Rose Nekesa rice field in western Kenya has been invaded by huge flocks of the ravenous red-billed quelea bird.

Thousands of farmers like her near the lake town of Kisumu fear they will reap their worst harvest in five years.

“I’m losing my voice from screaming all day to scare the birds away. These birds aren’t afraid of anything,” she tells the BBC, holding a giant lump of mud in one hand and a stick in the other.

“They are already used to us and everything we throw at them.”

She throws mud at the birds to scare them away from her harvest. Her small, wiry body often allows her to run across her paddy field when more swarms are coming down.

“If there are no birds, I can work alone. Now I need at least four people to work for me. It is very expensive. We ask the government to intervene. This rice is the only source of income we have. “

picture description,

Rose Nekesa tries to scare the birds away with a stick in one hand and mud in the other

Lawrence Odanga, another small farmer, is also at the mercy of the world’s most populous wild birds.

“I can hear them. They come to destroy us,” he yells in his native Dholuo.

Even for the five people he hires to guard his crops each morning, driving the birds away is an impossible task.

Scarecrows, the occasional rumble of vuvuzelas, and bird traps have all proved ineffective.

“The birds have destroyed almost all four acres of my farm. I will not earn anything. How will I get my children to school?”

Sometimes referred to as “feathered locusts,” queleas are considered pests throughout eastern and southern Africa.

An average quelea bird can eat about 10 g (0.35 oz) of grain per day. Not a huge amount, but since the herds can number two million, together they can consume up to 20 tons of grain in 24 hours.

chemical spray

In 2021, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that the birds were losing $50 million (41 million pounds) worth of crops annually, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.

The recent quelea invasion of Kisumu with about 10 million birds has already decimated 300 acres of rice fields. According to the county government, another 2,000 acres are still at risk during harvest season.

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WATCH: Kenyan farmers fight the quelea birds

Other parts of the country are more affected. Millions of the birds invaded wheat farms in southern Narok County, destroying an estimated 40% of the crop.

The prolonged drought in the Horn of Africa, which has resulted in fewer seeds of wild grasses, a main food source for queleas, may be behind the invasion of cultivated land as the birds seek an alternative, some Kenyan scientists have suggested.

However, Paul Gacheru of the environmental organization Nature Kenya argues that drought caused by climate change is not the main reason.

He points the finger at land-use change, as “intensive farming and human settlement mean we are losing room for natural vegetation to grow. The Quelea species are adapting to the current land use”.

Increased grain production across Africa may have also increased quelea populations as there is a greater food source for their super-nomadic populations.

In addition, the birds breed very quickly – three times a year with up to nine chicks – resulting in a huge population explosion.

Since mud, sticks and vuvuzelas have failed to protect crops, authorities have turned to mass culling by chemical spraying.

image source, David Wadulo/Kisumu County

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Drones are used to spray the rest areas

In 2019, the Kenyan government reportedly killed eight million quelea who trespassed on the Mwea Irrigation Scheme, the country’s largest rice farming project.

Another two million were killed the same way in Mwea last year.

That year, authorities in Kisumu began an air control operation aimed at killing at least six million birds. Drones are being used to target the pesticide fenthion at the birds’ roosting sites, where they rest and breed.

Ken Onyango, in charge of agriculture in Kisumu County, said chemical spraying is the only way to save the endangered paddy fields.

“You can’t kill everything”

Fenthion is highly toxic to other species that are not the primary target. Therefore, environmental scientists and animal rights activists warn that spraying will have serious consequences for the ecosystem, other plant and animal species, and human health.

“The question is how do you plan to coexist with the birds? Because you can’t kill everything to leave the people behind,” argues Raphael Kapiyo, professor of environmental and geosciences at Maseno University.

“But beyond that, we’re saying that trying to control the birds with the chemicals is so dangerous.”

Instead, the professor wants more traditional, environmentally friendly methods — like scaring or catching and eating the birds — to be used to curb the quelea.

In his opinion, chemical spraying offers only an easy way out. However, the alternatives are considered expensive and time-consuming.

Mr Onyango, who oversees the spraying operation in Kisumu, says the correct procedures have been followed and approved by the National Environmental Management Agency.

“We can’t be so careless as to do something that has a negative impact on the environment,” he adds.

Collins Marangu, director of crop protection services, acknowledges that killing the birds is undesirable but necessary.

“What we do is precision farming,” he says.

“We spray the roost areas at night exactly where the birds are. Then we collect and burn them.” Two of the three quarters were sprayed.

But whichever method is used, the control measures come too late for the farmers concerned, since part of the harvest has already been consumed. Harvests have fallen by more than half.

People near Kisumu say the queleas are still causing a problem.

Rice farmer Rose Nekesa prepares for the worst. She had hoped to harvest at least 50 sacks of rice during the season. Now she expects to collect only 30.

“We just want the government to take these birds away,” she says desperately.

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