The Red Palm Weevil (Rhynchophorus Ferrugineus) is decimating the majestic, 80-year-old palm trees lining the most beautiful boulevard in the ancient city of Carthage. First detected in 2011, the invasive insect has infected the majority of the 300 palm trees located on “Avenue de la République” and its surrounding areas.
The insect is “the most dangerous and deadly pest of the date palm in the world,” according to Hamda Chebbi from the quarantine department at the Ministry of Agriculture.
In less than two years, the death of the palm tree population in Carthage has accelerated rapidly. The infestation has reached the presidential palace and stretched out to the nearby neighborhoods of La Marsa and Soukra. Inhabitants of Carthage with whom I spoke seemed disturbed by the destruction of a beautiful walkway designed in the 1920s for the 30th Eucharistic Congress held in Carthage in 1930.
“It is at that time that these palm trees were planted,” explained Mohamed, 67, a retiree who lives in the neighborhood. “The ancient name of ‘Avenue de la République’ was ‘Avenue du Cardinal Lavigerie,’ and for almost a century this boulevard has been known as a promenade for couples and families who take the train from Tunis and stop at the Hannibal TGM station to have a walk downhill toward the sea.”
The Red Palm Weevil originates from India and has been advancing westward very rapidly since the mid-1980s, according to Chebbi. It reached the Gulf countries in 1985, Egypt in 1992, then most of Mediterranean countries, such as Spain (1996), Italy (2004), France (2006), Libya (2009), and Morocco (2010). Tunisia had been protected from this insect because of its strict ban on all kinds of imported palms.
Ibrahim Charmiti, coordinator of the national response against the Red Palm Weevil, blames horticulturalists for illegally importing infected palms, most likely from Sicily, in order to make a quick profit.
“Smuggling infected palm trees is a crime that should be investigated and those responsible should be brought to justice,” he said.
A dedicated team of three engineers, two students and five technicians and workers has been assembled to eradicate the destructive pest from our palms, according to Charmiti.
Once the weevil infects a palm tree, its spawn will remain in all stages of development (eggs, larvae and fully grown), increasing in number until the tree is killed. The insect devours the palms by boring large networks of tiny tunnels into the trunks.
As long as the tree is alive, the weevils are contained. However, once the tree dies, the adults depart in the hundreds, infecting other trees within a certain distance. While some are already dead, many Canary palm trees (Phoenix canariensis) in Carthage are dried out and their tops seriously affected by the infestation.Preventing infection requires frequent and expensive chemical treatment of trees over their entire lifetime. This is nearly impossible, especially considering that palm trees are slow-growing and can live for many decades. The weevils have all the time in the world.Charmiti explained a bucket truck should be used to spray and inject pesticides into the trees. They should be immediately removed, transported and burned as soon as they show signs of infection, he added.
But we “lack the resources to be able to do this and so far the municipality and the Ministry of Agriculture are not willing to support these expenses,” he continued. “Although at the end of the day, dead trees are going to have to be removed anyway as they become a public hazard.”
The rapid expansion of this infestation has raised concerns over its potential threat to the palm date oases in southern Tunisia.
“This would be a national disaster and we are doing our best to avoid such a catastrophe,” Charmiti said.
The Ministry of Agriculture has produced and distributed leaflets and posters to inform palm date farmers on the danger posed by the Red Palm Weevil.
“This is a good step, but we expect much more,” said Ahmed Abdeddayem from the oasis of Kebili. He serves as the president of Nakhla, an NGO working to preserve date palms from the numerous threats they are facing.
“We want a large communication campaign that will raise awareness of this national threat,” he said. “We also need to train the farmers, technicians and all actors involved in the date business.”
Chiheb Nasr, a blogger from the oasis of Douz, said that lack of border control and the absence of adequate training of security forces have exacerbated the problem.