Ethiopia is winning the battle against the tsetse fly, using what officials say is safe nuclear technology.
The project to battle livestock-menacing tsetse flies started in April in a laboratory on the outskirts of the capital. The key weapon? Radiation.
Terzu Daya, the director the lab, explains how it works.
“The purpose of radiation is to make them [tsetste flies] to be sterile,” said Daya. “If you avoid further generation, so that the tsetse fly can be eradicated. The main secret behind this is that, once female flies mate with the male, she will not mate again in her life. That’s the advantage.”
After the sterilization, a plane spreads thousands of non-productive tsetse flies every Wednesday in various parts of Ethiopia, especially along riverbed breeding grounds. So far, more than a million laboratory flies have been released. Now sterilized flies outnumber fertile flies, eight to one.
Thomas Cherenet, the director general of the Southern Tsetse Eradication Project, says the program is safe, effective and will not affect the delicate food chain balance.
“They [the tsteste flies] are not even used in the food chain,” said Cherenet. “They are not used for any animal to be fed.”
The tsetse fly is only found in Africa and poses threats to both humans and livestock. The blood sucking fly spreads a parasite which causes trypanosomiasis and attacks the central nervous system. In humans the disease is commonly called sleeping sickness. In cattle and other livestock it is called nagana. Its symptoms are similar to malaria and it can kill, if left untreated. Tens of millions of Africans and their livestock are at risk each year.
Cherenet says the radiation project to eradicate the tsetse is having a quick and positive impact. He notes that the livestock population has tripled this year.
“Production and productivity of the animal increases when it is healthy,” said Cherenet. “In some places the crop has increased, that means they have a good plug power of the animal. And, the milk production increases, and the meat production increased so this is a benefit they got.”
More than 80 percent of Ethiopians depend on livestock production and agriculture.
The radiation project is funded and promoted by the International Atomic Energy Agency. IAEA Director General Yukiya sees great potential for this nuclear technology in the world.
“Tsetse flies is one of the examples,” said Yukiya. “This same technology can be used for fruit flies. In Guatemala and in a part of Argentina they have applied this technology to eradicate fruit flies. And, thanks to this technology, they can export oranges and other citrus fruits to a very prosperous market in northern America.”
The IAEA also funded and promoted the first breakthrough tsetse radiation project in Zanzibar in 1997. The same technology is what is now being copied in Ethiopia. But Amano says that the success of Zanzibar does not guarantee success in all other places.
“The geographical situation is important,” said Amano. “If the area is isolated, like an isolated island like Zanzibar, it is easy that the insect will not come in again.”
While Ethiopia is trying its best to get rid of the tsetse fly for good, insects on the continent have the strong capacity of moving. African Union Commissioner of Technology Rhoda Peace Tumuslime says that other countries need to commit to eradicate the fly as well.
“The tsetse flies, they know no border,” said Tumuslime. “So each country should ensure that they control, so eventually we will eradicate tsetse flies from the continent.”
Complete eradication of the tsetse flies is expected to take several decades.