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Locusts may strike as Passover nears

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Kohanim, or members of the priestly caste, make a blessing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem during Passover 2003. (Brian Hendler)

Kohanim, or members of the priestly caste, make a blessing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem during Passover 2003. (Brian Hendler)

ROME, Feb. 29 (JTA) — Just a few weeks before Passover, a real and potentially devastating plague of locusts may be hitting the Red Sea coast and other parts of the Middle East and Africa. In a warning issued last week, the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said a locust outbreak is “in progress on the Red Sea coast in Saudi Arabia where swarms are forming.” Despite intensive control operations, it said, “some of these are expected to move into the central interior of the country where a further generation of breeding could occur in the spring. It is possible that a few swarms could reach adjacent areas in Jordan, southern Iraq and Western Iran later in the spring.” The organization’s Red Sea locust warning came as part of an appeal for $9 million in funding to stave off potential plague-proportion locust outbreaks in desert parts of northern and western Africa, including Mali, Chad and Mauritania. “If control operations have to slow down or be interrupted, more locusts added to those already there could contribute to eventually transforming the current situation into a plague,” the organization warned. Rampaging swarms of locusts that darken the sky and consume everything in their path have long been one of the most feared natural phenomena in the region Most famously, a locust outbreak was one of the 10 Plagues that God inflicted on the Egyptians in order to win freedom for the Israelites, commemorated each year at Passover seders. The plague consisted of Sudanese locusts, which wreaked havoc in the region every few years, according to Encyclopedia Judaica. “The Bible and talmudic literature describe the plague of locusts as one of the worst visitations to come upon the country,” the encyclopedia says. “Its gravity and extent varies from time to time.” Besides the plaque visited upon Egypt, one of the most severe biblical plagues of locusts was recounted by the prophet Joel, who provided detailed descriptions of the locusts’ development, extent and damage. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization describes the desert locust as a form of grasshopper that modifies its behavior and appearance in response to environmental conditions. Individual locusts usually are found at very low densities in the desert regions of about 20 countries between Mauritania and India. But, the organization noted, when weather conditions are right, individual locusts can quickly multiple into huge, devastating and highly mobile swarms that move collectively and fly hundreds or even thousands of miles. “When the locusts find ideal conditions in a sequence of seasonal breeding areas, upsurges can develop and lead to rapid multiplication and increasingly large swarms,” the organization said. “If an upsurge is not controlled, a plague can occur in which swarms invade countries outside the traditional breeding areas. Crop damage by swarms can be devastating.” As the prophet Joel put it, locusts made the fig tree “clean bare; the branches thereof are made white.” And the prophet Amos warned that the locust devoured “your gardens and your vineyards and your fig trees and your olive trees.” The Food and Agriculture Organization maintains a special Locust Group to coordinate control operations and external assistance for countries under threat. It receives information and data from national researchers in the field, analyzes the information with meteorological, remote-sensing and historical data and issues forecasts, alerts and special warnings.

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