Bug threatens Kenya's lucrative eucalyptus trade

Scientists in the country have raised alarm over an eucalyptus tree killer invasive species originally from Australia but which have found its way in the country where it is already causing losses to commercial eucalyptus tree farmers,a move if left unchecked could wipe thousands of trees in the country as it did in Australia where it destroyed over 100,000 eucalyptus trees in a month.

According to Eston Mutitu, a Principal Research Scientist at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), the spread of the species has been aided by movement of Maasai herdsmen who grazed across the Tanzania border before moving back to across Kenya with now th first case of the species having been identified in Kiserian on the outskirts of Nairobi

"The winter bronze bug, thaumastocoris peregrinus was first recorded in South Africa in 2003 but has spread rapidly to Zimbabwe, Malawi and now in Kenya," Mutitu said.

He revealed that its symptoms are marked by reddening or yellow brown discolouration of the infested foliage.

"The severe infestation leads to branch dieback, leaf loss and often leads to the death of a tree hence a big blow to farmers who are mainly women," he added.

Nobody is allowed to introduce any species into the country without the approval of the Kenya Standing Technical Committee for Imports and Exports (KSSTCIE) that ensures that the species are safe, environmental friendly and has the efficacy to suppress the intended purpose.

Mutitu said that a survey done by scientists at KEFRI in November-December 2011 discovered that it had spread in parts of Kenya hence sending a chilling message to commercial eucalyptus farmers.

He disclosed that despite being in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Malawi, it was Kenya that raised the alarm and following studies that involved regional scientists, it was found that it is poses a threat to trees and urgent attention was needed.

Scientists have however identified a unique parasite Cleruchoides noackae, which they say will work as a potential biological control agent.

"We have already acquired cleruchoides noackae pest which are being breed under quarantine in South Africa to be able to meet the government legal procedures before they are brought in Kenya to help stop the spread of the species," Mutitu revealed.

After this stage, the team involved are expected to apply for permission to release the insects below economic injury level.

However Mutitu is hopeful that the pests will be available in Kenya by mid 2013 after filling request from the Ministry of Agriculture.

Although eucalyptus trees have drawn controversy in the recent past due to their water guzzling trait, their demand by fencing and electricity companies in Kenya has seen even government introduce high quality ones for farmers to plant as its high quality and ability to withstand termite attack becomes unrivalled. The demand has been spurred by recent data from the Ministry of energy that shows that consumer demand for electricity has shot up by over 90% since 2008 with the country's yearly imports of electricity poles currently stands at Sh5 billion. A eucalyptus pole cost Sh21,000.

Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter