January 23, 2009

Army worm caterpillar invades Liberia

Hordes of caterpillars are destroying crops and vegetation in northern Liberia, posing a threat to food security, the United Nations said.

The situation in Liberia is a national emergency and likely will escalate into a regional crisis involving Guinea, Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire, Winfred Hammon, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization representative, said in a news release.

The agency has created a task force to assess the situation, prepare an action plan and develop medium- and long-term measures, said Hammond. Liberia set up three emergency committees to provide planning, resources mobilization and communication and information.

The caterpillars, described by villagers as black, creeping and hairy, are advancing in the tens of millions, he said, devouring plants and food crops in their path and in sometimes overrunning homes and buildings.

The food organization said some villagers couldn't reach their farms because of the pests, suspected to be African army worms.

The situation is getting worse, Rennie Jackson, superintendent of Bong County, told the U.N. Integrated Regional Information Networks. Most drinking water sources, including creeks and wells, have been polluted with the feces of the worms. The number of affected people is in the thousands.

The army worm, the caterpillar form of the noctuid or Owlet moth, is native to North and South America. Its name comes from its habit, in tropic areas, of moving into a region in a large group, consuming all available food and then moving on.