It was the case of one good story leading to another.
After its shocking report Jan. 25 on the locust swarms devastating agriculture in Kenya, AP’s Nairobi team came through with another truly striking package on the worst locust outbreak that parts of East Africa have seen in 70 years. This time, they obtained exclusive coverage of the next wave of young locusts now bulking up in Somalia’s desert.
Officials in charge of the United Nations’ response to the locust outbreak couldn't help but notice the AP photo and video packages from Kenya, and a contact at the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization offered bureau chief and veteran photographer Ben Curtis an exclusive trip to Somalia with a team of FAO’s locust experts to document the area where the next generation of locusts is crawling, wingless, and preparing for flight.
In Somalia, the challenge is safe access, and the young locusts are in the middle of the desert in areas where the threat posed by the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group prevents independent travel. Curtis and video journalist Josphat Kasire traveled by a convoy of U.N. vehicles, escorted by an armed Somali police special protection unit. Because of al-Shabab’s hold on parts of Somalia, no pesticide spraying can be conducted in large swathes of the country. That effectively leaves adjoining countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia open to further locust swarms the size of small cities.
As if security wasn’t enough of a problem, the busy young locusts posed another. “If you put anything down on the ground for a minute, you’d find a bunch of bugs crawling over it,” Curtis recounted.
“The challenge was because of the distances and security, we had very limited time on the ground with the locusts. I would have liked to have visited more locations,” Kasire said. His reporting included the first major warning that this outbreak could turn into a multi-year plague. In Johannesburg, reporter Cara Anna wove together their accounts of the scene and material from their interviews into the text story.
Anna Johnson, news director for Europe and Africa in London, said the photos gave her chills. The exclusive images from the source of the widespread outbreak – proof that it was far from over – were widely used.
Before Somalia, the Nairobi team had wanted to take their initial Kenya coverage further by reporting on aerial spraying of pesticides – called by experts the only effective method of locust control. Nairobi senior TV producer Khaled Kazziha worked contacts until he found a pilot involved in the operation. Filming the planes spraying pesticides required a lot of coordination. The AP crew on the ground was in direct contact with the pilot, exchanging the GPS coordinates of the locust swarm’s latest position to ensure they could get shots as the plane passed overhead.
“Finding the locusts in Kenya was not always easy,” Curtis said. “They can travel many miles each day and so you are constantly chasing to get to locations they may have already left,” driving through thick, thorny bush and then hiking on foot with an armed ranger because of the possibility of lions.
When the swarms flew overhead, “the numbers were so many that the crew was rained down upon with yellow feces,” he added. And some locusts “ended up hitting you in the face or landing on your body.”
“We didn’t look all that bad afterwards, because you were mostly able to brush it off, but some (residue) worked its way into the crevices of our cameras and equipment, which was annoying.”
For braving the possibility of encounters with lions and al-Shabab to get an only-on-AP direct look at the ravages of a veritable Biblical plague of locusts in East Africa, Kasire and Curtis win AP’s Best of the Week award.