Image of a man being swarmed by locusts
Art by Istvan Banyai

Dodging Locusts

Picture of Iain Couzin

Iain Couzin

National Geographic Emerging Explorer
Expertise: Swarm Behaviorist
Location: Mauritania

Photograph by Simon Garnier

Locust swarms eat all the vegetation in their path, seeking protein, salt, and water. When that runs out—sometimes even before—they turn into cannibals. Locusts hate to be around each other. They change color and behavior when in groups, and start to form swarms. They’re the Jekyll and Hyde of the insect world. Imagine hopping masses of millions of bugs, each trying to eat the ones in front of it.

Mauritania suffers countrywide outbreaks of these swarms. My team and I, studying the outbreaks there, wanted to know more. When I picked up one locust to examine it more closely, my hands swelled up. Toxic chemicals on the insect had reacted in sunlight when they touched my skin. To make matters worse, we were a two-day drive outside Mauritania’s capital, in the middle of the desert, and had just run out of food. Across Mauritania there was a shortage, because the locusts were eating the crops. We couldn’t eat the locusts, normally a great source of protein, because they were toxic. We got desperate after a day or two. We tried to buy food from the nomads who stopped to drink tea, and managed to get our hands on some camel entrails. My decade of vegetarianism prior to the trip went out the window.

We dried the entrails in a tree outside camp. After I ate them, cramps and vomiting set in and I started hallucinating. I was in a dream world, and not a good one. We were very short of water, had no medical equipment except some antibiotics, and had no way of getting out of the sun other than to bake in our airless tents. It was a waiting game. After I started feeling better a few days later and we got some supplies in, a massive sandstorm kept us in the tents for an extra day and a half. We just had to ride it out.

Related: Video: Lessons From a Cannibal Plague

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