The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Tuesday 25th March 2003

Agricultural Expansion and Pest Control in Ethiopia

Given by - Belai Hailu

Reviewed by - Geoffrey Ben-Nathan

Red-billed Quelea

The red-billed quelea (Quelea quelea) is just one of Ethiopia's sixty-five or so species of weaver birds, so-called for their intricate 'woven' nests. Sparrow-sized, a mere 5 inches (13 cm), the little bird has nevertheless managed to emerge as Ethiopia's 'public enemy number one' - or somewhere near it!

People are after it with murder in mind; worse even, 'genocide'!

Why? What's the little birdie done?

On Tuesday March 25th, the Society welcomed Belai Hailu to tell us. He illustrated his fascinating talk, 'Agricultural Expansion and Pest Control in Ethiopia', with the most wonderful slides.

Belai Hailu is now a science teacher at Elthorne Park High School in Ealing, London, but he hasn't always been. Born in Gojjam, he served as a bird control expert in the Pest Control Unit of Ethiopia's Ministry of Agriculture based at Addis Ababa.

In a joint venture with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), battle was joined against the quelea; more than battle, all-out war!

Quelea flock

The quelea's problem is its 'gregariousness'. Queleas seem to like each other on a grand scale. Flocks of between one and two hundred thousand are not uncommon. Indeed, Belai's pictures showed quelea flocks darkening the landscape like mini-tornadoes. And the damage they do is pretty similar. Precisely why this particular species of weaver breeds as prolifically as it does is a complete mystery.

Queleas have to eat to live. Their natural preference is wild grass seed. But as Ethiopia's human population grows, more and more wild grassland is converted into agricultural use. Unable therefore to find grass seed, queleas land on teff, sorghum and maize crops doing incalculable harm.

Man retaliates by way of a weapon of mass destruction: Queletox, an organophosphorous pesticide developed by Bayer. Attack is at dusk in the quelea breeding season. Toxin delivery is by specially adapted crop-spraying aircraft operated by the Desert Locust Control Organization for Eastern Africa (DLCOEA).

Success? Very questionable.

If the 'kill-rate' was less than 80%, the process had to be repeated. 'Non-target kills' (you can tell it's war, military jargon is employed) abound. In a magnificent set of photographs, Belai Hailu showed how Queletox also took its toll on such unintended victims as: secretary birds, Egyptian and griffon vultures, fish eagles and hawks - all magnificent birds of prey at the top of the food chain. A little lower down, photographed in their magnificence, were Abyssinian rollers, superb starlings and kingfishers of every type (woodland, grey-headed and pygmy).

If the kill-rate is more than 80%, you still haven't really achieved all that much. You've only sorted out one flock. There are hundreds more. In an average 4 year life span, with an average brood of 2.5 eggs, Belai said that queleas respond to being killed by doubling their population. No mean feat!

Meanwhile Queletox is so potent that it even destroys algae in lakes. God alone knows what harm the chemical is doing to humans it's designed to protect! Belai Hailu related how his primary concern had been the pesticide's effect on the environment.

Nothing anywhere is as simple as one might wish. Certainly not in Africa. Why, one questioner asked, was the bird not consumed as good wholesome protein (which it is). Out of the question. The bird, said Belai, was simply not considered acceptable food by local people. That was that! On the other hand, he said, there had certainly been some investigation in South Africa as to the possibility of exporting tinned quelea. One man's abhorrence is another's luxury!

What about alternatives to Queletox? Theoretically, yes, said Belai; actually, no. Every alternative was too expensive: netting, explosives, other chemicals. Broadcasting distress-calls doesn't work; even queleas, like humans, get fed up with hearing 'wolf' cried too often.

So what do farmers actually do?

Well, if you're out in the Ethiopian countryside, and you see a group of rowdy little children bunking school, raising all-hell on a raised platform in the middle of a field of teff or sorghum, you now know why!

Feeding Ethiopia's burgeoning population is a major challenge. The threat of famine this year has already been voiced. It's truly amazing how unaware people are, in all parts of the world, how much their fate depends on obscure micro-organisms or little known and little heard-of phenomena. Into this last category falls the mass flocking of Quelea quelea.

Our President, Jim Randell, on behalf of us all, expressed to Belai Hailu our deepest appreciation for a truly graphic and thought-provoking revelation.

First Published in News File Summer 2003

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