By Ronald Musoke
The Desert Locust Control Organization for East Africa (DLCO-EA) has come out to defend itself against allegations that it indiscriminately killed over a million birds in July.
The exercise was intended to control the birds that were causing massive crop loss in eastern Uganda.
Speaking at the monthly public lecture organized by Nature-Uganda on Sept. 5, Evarist Magara, DLCO’s country representative said his organization was professional throughout the exercise.
Magara noted that DLCO has been at the helm of pest management over the last 50 years in eastern Africa and always follows internationally agreed protocols.
In July, the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries solicited for the services of DCLO to destroy roosts of Quelea birds estimated in millions that were threatening to wipe out rice and sorghum crops worth billions of shillings in eastern Uganda.
The action led to several stakeholders trading accusations and counter-accusations. The environmentalists even threatened to sue DLCO for US $ 250,000 in compensation for the loss of the birds.
The environmentalists condemned the aerial spraying pointing to inadequate environmental impact assessment and a lack of national protocol to guide such an exercise.
The conservationists said this was not only a breach of wildlife laws but also endangered other species not targeted by spraying like bees and butterflies which are key agents in pollination.
On the other hand the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) said they were not consulted and they neither cleared the agriculture ministry nor DLCO to conduct the aerial spray.
The agriculture ministry had responded to a call from Tilda Rice Scheme at Kibimba, in Bugiri District in July which reported losses of 30-50% crop losses due to the invasion.
In late June, it was also reported that ‘strange’ birds had wiped out over 1000 acres of sorghum worth a billion shillings in the eastern district of Kween which left the population on the brink of hunger.
Quelea birds are in the same family as weaver birds, according to Magara, and are very destructive.
Magara noted that because of their characteristics being similar to locusts [move in large flocks and can cause very big losses to cereal crops in a short period of time]; the birds are also referred to as locust birds.
He said, in the two exercises, DLCO surveyed and identified the birds’ roosts before spraying which made it easy to limit deaths of non-target species. He added that they had also sensitized communities about the exercise and therefore it is not true that people ate the dead birds immediately after the exercise.
However, Achilles Byaruhanga, the executive director of Nature-Uganda disagreed with Magara’s account saying that they too carried out a verification exercise at Kibimba and identified 17 non-target species dead— which according to him is proof of inadequate planning. He also said that up to 2sq km was sprayed.
Byaruhanga whose organization is interested in the welfare of the country’s birds said wildlife and agricultural experts need to work together in future to ensure that management of these birds does not result into heavy losses of birds.
He said the Quellea birds are behaving this way because human beings have invaded their natural habitat [swamps].
According to Byaruhanga, Quellea birds naturally feed on wild grass seeds, but due to habitat destruction, they are now turning to rice and sorghum fields for food.
Byaruhanga said contrary to earlier assertions that the Quellea birds are migratory birds, they are native to Uganda and breed in swampy areas and do not move in huge numbers as the agriculture ministry claims.
Uganda is globally known as a bird haven and birding is one of the biggest tourism products.
According to the tourism ministry, Uganda generates more than Ushs 15billion shillings every year from bird watching alone.
Conservationists insist other methods like mist, trapping, and scaring can be used before considering aerial spraying.