In Madagascar's Capital City, a Plague of Locusts

A quick glance at the sky today in Antananarivo, Madagascar, reveals a massive storm cloud rolling through.

On second look, though, it becomes clear that it's no nimbus cloud but a seemingly endless stream of locusts flying low through the city's already polluted skies.

Locust plagues have damaged Madagascar's farmland for the past three years, as in the biblical story, prompting the government in November 2012 to declare a national emergency and allow the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to launch a pesticide campaign in September 2013.

With 1.2 million hectares treated with pesticides, the problem is under better control now. 

But a recent heat wave in the Central Highlands region brought new hordes of locusts to the capital city, where they disrupt daily life for the urban enclave's some 2 million residents.

This year, the large, flying insects were mainly isolated in the country's west, where they've threatened the livelihoods of farmers whose crops were quickly destroyed by the leaf munchers.

The FAO estimates 13 million people's incomes are threatened by the invasion, which would require $43.9 million to completely control.

The invasion of farmland prompted fears of food shortages, as it takes only a few hours for a swarm of locusts to wipe out a field of crops.

But in Antananarivo, it's residents' health that is at risk, as some catch the low-flying bugs in plastic water bottles to eat, which is dangerous because many are now contaminated by pesticides.

"We always advise the population to not eat the locusts because we are already using pesticides to treat them," Patrice Talla Takoukam, a spokesman for the FAO in Madagascar, told Agence France-Presse in a televised interview.

For now, whether residents are running to catch them or running to avoid them, the locusts are only multiplying.

And the problem will take some serious funding, another $15 million or so beyond the U.N. plan, to get under the infestation fully under control. 

"We need to put our heads together and mobilize our resources," Takoukam said. "If we don't.... Then our risk is that we'll continue to have invasions like we have in the past two years."

AFP Photo/Rijasolo


In Russia, Sign a Mortgage and Get a Cat -- But Only for Two Hours

Russia's largest bank wants to lend you a cat. Isn't that nice?

What did you do for the good folks of Sberbank, the Moscow-based lender, that would make them want to drive a van to your home and drop off one of their 10 cats -- which they keep just for occasions like this -- so you can hang out with it for not more than two hours? Well, they just lent you the money for the house and, as Russian superstition has it, it's good luck for the first creature to cross the threshold of a new home to be a feline. And, yes, the cat has to be returned to the bank.

This neighborly campaign from the friendliest of all Russian banking behemoths is a ploy to cash in on Russia's mortgage market boom. According to the Central Bank of Russia, demand for home mortgages is on the rise. People "watch[ing] their savings lose value amid a sliding ruble and rising interest rates" are the driving factor, according to the Moscow Times. Cats, apparently, are the key for Sberbank cashing in.

How excited can people be about cats that they don't get to keep? Apparently very, if the bank's marketing video is any indication. Once the superstitious home buyer gets his loan approved, he gets to pick (online even!) which charmed rattrap will be ferried in to consecrate his new abode. There's a counter below each cat, in case you feel like keeping score. The furry talisman will then wander around your house until its handlers -- two unshaven men in green overalls -- whisk it away to its next engagement.

Relevant questions that go unanswered by a campaign designed to tug all the heartstrings of an Internet generation now brainwashed to love cats include: Does it count if you nudge the cat through the door? If an old lady gives Knop (the No. 1 most popular house-blessing mouse-hunter) a friendly push in the right direction, will that nix the grimalkin-voodoo hunting powers for which she paid good money? And if so, what horrors await the little girl who so unceremoniously hauled Timothy into her new living room? Do you think Caesar's mustache is fake? Is the loan contract voided if hairless Kuzma refuses to cooperate?

Possible pitfalls aside, if you're interested, you'd better act fast: The deal only lasts until mid-December, at which point if you want to buy into this kooky tradition, you may just have to adopt a cat.