Kenyan rice farmers fight quelea birds in Kisumu

Quelea birds

Quelea birds

The Rose Nekesa paddy field in western Kenya has been overrun by massive swarms of the voracious red-billed quelea bird.

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

“I lose my voice because I scream all day to scare the birds away. These birds are not afraid of anything,” she tells the BBC, holding a huge lump of mud in one hand and a stick in the other.

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

She pelts the birds with mud to drive them away from her crop. Her small, wiry body often allows her to run across her paddy field when more swarms descend.

“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 beg the government to intervene. This rice is the only source of income we have .”

Farmer after the birds

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

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

“I can hear them. They are coming to destroy us,” he shouts in his native language, Dholuo.

Even for the five people he’s hired to protect every acre of his harvest, chasing away the birds is an impossible task.

Scarecrows, the occasional blaring of vuvuzelas, and bird traps have all proven ineffective.

“The birds have destroyed almost all four acres of my farm. I don’t earn anything. How do I take my children to school?’

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

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

Chemical spraying

In 2021, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that $50 million (£41 million) worth of crops were lost annually to the birds, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.

The latest quelea invasion in Kisumu, with some 10 million birds, has already decimated 300 hectares of paddy fields. According to the provincial government, another 2,000 hectares are at risk during the harvest season.

Other parts of the country have been hit harder. Millions of birds invaded wheat farms in southern Narok province, destroying an estimated 40% of the crop.

The prolonged drought in the Horn of Africa, which has led to fewer seeds of wild grasses, a primary food source for queleas, may be driving the invasion of cultivated land as the birds search for an alternative, some Kenyan scientists have suggested .

However, Paul Gacheru, of the environmental organization Nature Kenya, argues that climate change-induced drought is not the main cause.

He points the finger at land use changes, as “intensive farming and settlement means we lose space for natural vegetation to grow. The quelea species are adapting to current land use.”

Increased cereal crop production across Africa may have also increased quelea populations as there is a greater source of food for their supernomadic populations.

In addition, the birds breed at lightning speed – three times a year with as many as nine chicks – causing the population to explode enormously.

Since mud, sticks and vuvuzelas have failed to protect the crops, authorities have resorted to a mass culling using chemical spraying.

Drone in the night sky

Drones are used to spray the rest areas

In 2019, the Kenyan government was reported to have killed eight million quelea who entered the Mwea Irrigation Scheme, the country’s largest rice-growing project.

Last year another two million people were killed in Mwea in the same way.

This year, authorities in Kisumu launched an air-control operation to kill at least six million birds. Drones are used to bombard the birds’ resting areas, where they rest and breed, with the pesticide fenthion.

Ken Onyango, who is responsible for agriculture in Kisumu province, said spraying with chemicals was the only way to save the endangered rice fields.

“You Can’t Kill Everything”

Fenthion is highly toxic to other species that are not the main target. As a result, environmental scientists and animal activists warn that the 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 so that humans remain,” argues Raphael Kapiyo, a professor of environmental and earth sciences at Maseno University.

“But more than that, we’re saying it’s so dangerous to control the birds with the chemicals.”

The professor wants more traditional, environmentally friendly methods to be used instead – such as scaring or capturing and eating the birds – to contain the quelea.

Chemical spraying, he thinks, simply offers an easy way out. However, the alternatives are seen as expensive and time consuming.

Mr Onyango, who oversees the spraying operation in Kisumu, says proper procedures have been followed and approved by the National Environment Management Authority.

“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 not desirable, but says it is necessary.

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

“We spray the roosts at night, right where the birds are. Then we collect and burn them.” Two of the three sleeping places have been sprayed.

But whatever method is used, the control measures have come too late for the affected farmers because part of the harvest has already been eaten. Harvests have fallen by more than half.

Those close to Kisumu say the queleas are still a problem.

Rice farmer Rose Nekesa braces herself 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 out,” she says desperately.



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