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Challenging Tsetse on its Home Turf: Campaign Moves to Africa’s Heartlands

Arba Minch, Ethiopia. Africa’s Great Rift Valley, green and lush as it sweeps through southwestern Ethiopia, is eerily devoid of settlement across its fertile plain. In the surrounding hills, by contrast, above an unseen boundary, circular thatched houses, smoke drifting from cooking fires, bloom in profusion. Herds of cattle, fields of maize, and other crops, in some places extending almost to the hilltops, surround them.
Tsetse fly feeding

Human and animal diseases spread by tsetse flies are a root cause of poverty and low agricultural productivity across a wide band of Sub-Saharan Africa.

In 10 years, or less, experts reckon, much of this land will be irreparably damaged from over-grazing and cultivation. It is academic to the farmers who have retreated to these overcrowded hills: they are trying to escape the advance of a small biting insect—the tsetse fly—and nagana, the mostly lethal disease it is spreading among their livestock.

Once considered under control, the tsetse fly and trypanosomes—single cell parasites of the blood and nervous system for which it is host—are on a runaway course. To the south and west of Ethiopia the bite of the fly is spreading one of nature’s cruelest diseases, sleeping sickness. It puts 60 million people at risk and is now more widespread than severe epidemics of the 1930s.

The tsetse are rising like a tide in Ethiopia—possibly in response to a warming climate. Their presence has been a fact of life in the lowlands, but farmers had been relatively safe from the fly by occupying the highlands. Fully 90 per cent of Ethiopians and 80 per cent of their livestock occupy the highlands, which make up 55 per cent of the land mass.

How fast that refuge is shrinking is made clear on the eastern side of the Rift valley from Arba Minch, where Cheha was the centre of a flourishing agricultural district of 50,000 little more than a decade ago. Today it is abandoned, says Solomon Mekuria, a government veterinarian based in Awasa, administrative centre for the region. Out of 77 rural districts in the region, 60 have fallen to the tsetse fly, says Solomon, the son of a farmer. “This was a good production area growing fruits, coffee, and cereal crops. Nowadays only 10 per cent of it is cultivated.”

Across the Rift and over an area of nearly 10 million square kilometres of sub-Saharan Africa—an area as big as the United States—nagana keeps a door locked that prevents the peoples of 32 of the world’s poorest countries from escaping poverty.

“It is no accident that some of the world’s most acute poverty is in regions of Africa infested with the tsetse fly,” says Qian Jihui, Deputy Director General for TC in the IAEA. “The international community is committed to halving the number of undernourished people by 2015”, said Mr. Qian, “but without addressing the root causes for low agricultural productivity—and particularly the tsetse—all other efforts will fail.”

Creating Fly Free Zones:
Alleviating African Poverty

The 2001 launch of the Pan African Tsetse and Trypanosomosis Eradication Campaign (PATTEC) begins fulfilling the declaration by African heads of state, meeting in Lome, in 2000, that the creation of fly free zones is not only a viable means of controlling nagana and sleeping sickness but a key to Africa’s recovery.

“Africa’s most viable contribution to her expanding population and to the rest of the world in the new millennium is increased agricultural production. The first step towards the development and realization of this option is the removal of the trypanosomosis constraint,” the leaders agreed at the Lome OAU summit.

Nearly 90 per cent of crops grown in Sub-Saharan Africa are produced without animal power. The lost potential costs Africa nearly
US$ 4.5 billion every year, the FAO says. In fact, in Sub-Saharan Africa the average amount of food production per person has declined in the last 40 years, according to a report recently delivered to the UN Economic and Social Council in Geneva.

“In effect, the fly prevents the transition from subsistence agriculture to income-generating mixed farming,” explains IAEA’s Deputy Director Qian. “It presents a ‘ecological barrier’ to livestock development by depriving farmers of the basic means for increasing agricultural production. It is a uniquely African problem.”

Allowing more African farmers to own livestock, would have a profound impact on hunger and poverty in the continent, explains Mr. Qian. “But that cannot be achieved without removing the tsetse fly.”

Tsetse flies are lured to certain colours, and insect traps take advantage of this attraction. Conventional fly reduction methods are being combined with the sterile insect technique in a campaign to eliminate tsetse species in several African countries.

The IAEA is providing most of the technical support in a bid to create tsetse fly free zones in areas with high agricultural development potential. Until now, the issue has received little attention largely because it is a rural problem and a disease of the poor.

It will be the first major step in a campaign, launched in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in October 2001, by the African Union—formerly the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), to eventually free Africa from the bite of the tsetse.

Controlling Tsetse in Chalba Village

At the centre of the muddy meeting place in the village of Chalba, beneath the spreading branches of a Warka tree, the farmers of this rich cropland on the banks of Lake Abaya, make a collective plea: “In the name of God don’t stop this programme,” says an elder.

All around Chalba, black and blue tent shaped fabric traps dot the landscape. Hundreds of the insecticide impregnated traps have been set by village associations of farmers, baited with fermented cow urine, to lure the tsetse flies. Drugs and insecticide, applied to the backs of cattle also offer protection.

Across this region of Ethiopia, scientists from the national government, local government officials, farmers, and school children are marshaling their resources to stamp out the tsetse forever.

“We don’t intend to do this forever,” says Assefa Mebrate of Addis Ababa University, who provides technical advice for the national programme. Once the present tsetse population is sizably reduced, waves of sterilized male tsetse flies, factory reared, will be released from the air.

“One plus one equals zero,” says a home-made sign in a regional tsetse control office in Ethiopia. It best expresses the method known as the “sterile insect technique” or SIT. Its promise is that it will push the tsetse toward extinction.

In the last century the mass slaughter of game, destruction of bush, and spraying of DDT, were strategies in an partially successful war against the fly. Piecemeal measures that followed, limited to villages and their immediate vicinity, have been unsustainable and, therefore, ineffective and not economical, says Assefa.

Ethiopia has chosen a 25,000 square kilometre region around Arba Minch, confined by mountains and lakes, as a proving ground to develop its capacity to apply SIT. This programme builds on the historic success of the method in eradicating the tsetse fly from the East African island of Zanzibar. In September 1996, the last wild tsetse fly was caught on the island after a joint programme between the government of Tanzania and the IAEA, supported by the FAO, IFAD, Belgium, Canada, China, Sweden, the UK, the USA, and the OPEC Fund.

Going to Market in Zanzibar

Abdullah Khalfan is talking on his mobile telephone, under the shining zinc sheet roof he has erected over the freshly painted white dairy produce stall in the bustling market in Zanzibar’s historic Stone Town.

He’s just finished serving Rahma Riyamy, who is buying milk for her family. It’s not pasteurized and she’ll scald it when she gets home. “I buy milk every day, sometimes we use it for the children. No it wasn’t so easy to get milk before, but the market is improving, it has a good selection.”

From local beef to milk and yoghurt, the results of ridding Zanzibar of the tsetse fly are plain to see in the market stalls. Abdullah sells on average 200 litres of milk every day, most of it for consumption by children, he says. Some of the milk is from his own herd of 18 mixed breed cows that he keeps on his small farm at the edge of town. Mixed breeds produce more milk, are bigger and stronger than the native zebu. But they couldn’t survive nagana. Zebus produce one to three litres of milk a day compared to seven to 10 litres for mixed breeds.

“Of course getting rid of the tsetse fly made a difference,” says Abdullah, who bought his first cow, while there was still tsetse, in 1994 after working as a merchant seaman. “There weren’t so many cows before. I’d like to add maybe 40, or 50. When there was tsetse it didn’t make any sense.”

Post tsetse dairy farming practice in Zanzibar is to bring feed to cows instead of grazing them on pasture. And there’s nothing that this new generation of healthy cows produces that isn’t of value.

“I have a good life, I like this business. We are all living better, I would even advise my daughter (four years old) to go into dairy farming.”

September 2001 was the fifth anniversary of the elimination of the tsetse on Zanzibar. “The dream is to do this for large areas on the African continent,” says the IAEA entomologist Arnold Dyck. “But if we hadn’t had success in Zanzibar the dream would have died.”

A Quiet Death 2000 Kilometres to the South

Sokoine village, Tanzania. The calf has just died and its small corpse lies inconspicuously on the dusty ground. Cause of death: probably nagana, perhaps complicated by a tick born disease. Lembile Roketa, a Masai cattle owner is familiar with this scene. He says he’s lost hundreds of cattle to the tsetse.

The deaths usually occur during the dry season when a sickened cow is unable to cope with increased stress, says Peter Masungwa, municipal livestock officer in nearby Morogoro. The cattle are small and scrawny zebu, in large herds. Milk yields are low and the Masai are poor.

“Nagana is common in this district, especially where there’s bush,” he says.

In July 2001 agricultural officials from Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya, agreed that the tsetse problem was so acute that “shock therapy” was needed, says Solomon Haile Mariam. Solomon, a senior livestock officer in the OAU’s Inter-African Bureau of Animal Resources, says that nagana and sleeping sickness have reached crisis proportions.

“This has been getting worse and worse during the past two decades. What has contributed to the disease is the insecurity and the conflict problems in central and east Africa.”

In the northeast of Uganda the local hospital that treats sleeping sickness is full with acute cases, he said. In northwestern Kenya there has been an advancement of tsetse flies mirroring events in Ethiopia. “There is practically no way of staying in that area with animals; people are absolutely poor.”

“If you remove the tsetse fly, it removes the cause of the disease, and poverty alleviation will result,” Solomon said. “But I don’t believe African governments will be able to find adequate resources to meet the budget for the first phase of elimination. We are counting on international donors to support our efforts aimed at creating fly free zones.”

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Ethiopia flag

Ethiopia map

Eliminating the tsetse fly and the diseases it spreads would help Africa’s rural families keep improved
livestock for milk, meat, and draught power to
cultivate crops.

The Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) involves two operational phases: First, flies are reared and fed in specially-designed insectaries. Next, male flies are sterilized with gamma radiation and released in the wild by airplane to mate with wild females.

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