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January 26, 2009

Hordes of caterpillars invade northern Liberia

Hordes of voracious caterpillars are destroying crops and prompting terrified villagers to flee their homes in northern Liberia in what is described as the West African country's worst plague in 30 years, a U.N. agency has said.

The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization said the about 1-inch-long (2-3 centimeters) caterpillars — described by villagers as "black, creeping and hairy" — are advancing in the tens of millions, devouring vegetation and food crops.

The invasion is likely to spread to neighboring Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast unless it is quickly contained, said entomologist Winfred Hammond, who is also the agency's representative in Liberia. Hammond blamed the outbreak on last year's unusually long rain season in the country. FAO also said that the caterpillars, suspected to be African armyworms, are clogging wells and waterways with excrement.

In some communities, villagers can't reach their farms as they are surrounded by the pests. Experts are trying to identify the exact species to choose the best pesticide to combat them, the agency said. However, aerial spraying risks further contaminating the water and hand spraying has proved ineffective, as the pests dwell on the leaves of giant forest trees that can rise more than 26 feet (8 meters). The last African armyworm outbreak in the area occurred in Ghana in 2006, the agency said.

Associated Press

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