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Desert locusts, A Continued Threat To Food Security

desert-locusts-a-continued-threat-to-food-security

The Desert Locust is considered the most destructive migratory pest in the world and a single swarm covering one square kilometre can contain up to 80 million locusts. 

As at 11th January, 2020, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) indicated that immature swarms of desert locusts continue to arrive and spread throughout the northern parts of Kenya. FAO’s report points out that so far, the swarms were present in four counties; Wajir, Garissa, Marsabit and Isiolo and that breeding continues as hopper bands were present in the southeast near Taita Taveta and along the Coast.  

FAO also notes that conditions are dry in some areas where the swarms are arriving, therefore the swarms are expected to disperse throughout northern Kenya, presenting a moderate risk that a few swarms could reach central Kenya and perhaps the southwest during this month. Once the swarms arrive in a favourable area, it is probable that they will mature and lay eggs that will hatch and cause hopper bands to form during the months of February and March.  

The Kenyan government has collaborated with various partners to find innovative solutions to contend with the ongoing locust invasion. The solutions currently in the works by FAO include the creation of tools that make use of technology, ranging from data collection apparatuses that monitor the presence of locusts to satellite imaging systems, which help predict where the crop-hungry pests will move to next. Kenya will soon become the first country to test FAO drones for locust surveillance. 

Keith Cressman, a Senior Locust Forecasting Officer at FAO noted that the countries in East Africa currently affected are not in the usual frontline areas for locust infestations, so they had none of the available locust control systems and tools in place. “We’re now speeding to make easy-to-use versions of those tools for countries like Kenya, South Sudan and Somalia – tools that can be used by field officers regardless of whether they’ve been trained in locust control or not.” said Cressman. 

“From a scientific perspective, crises like these offer an opportunity to test new ideas and technologies and see how they can be used to manage pests,” he added. 

Technology Oriented Solutions for Locust Invasion 

In the just ended year, Kenya’s economy has been badly dented and food security threatened by the effects of the Covid -19 pandemic as well as the desert locusts’ invasion, both extraordinary phenomenon manifesting for the first time. The government and private sector have both taken measures to address these ongoing crises and amongst the solutions being fronted is the use of technology oriented solutions for locust control. 

The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) is one strategic partner that is putting a range of tools directly into the hands of the government. The tools include FAO’s eLocust3, the standard surveillance technology used by countries with frequent locust infestations.  

With the crisis of locust invasion escalating in Kenya and other East Africa countries, Penn State University, a long-time FAO partner on pest research, swiftly developed a mobile phone version of the technology, eLocust3m, which is now widely available through App stores. The app can be used on majority of available smart phones, and includes an in-country chat, exponentially increasing countries’ capacities to share geo-referenced reports of locust movements and control operations in real time.  

FAO is also set to ship hundreds of eLocust3g, a new palm-sized GPS device with satellite connection and basic eLocust3 functions, to countries in Africa and Asia. The devices allow locust control field officers to record where they encounter locusts, what stage of development the locusts are in and what areas were treated.  

This information then feeds into national geographic information systems in the respective country. These systems are connected to a global geographic information system at FAO headquarters.  The headquarters distribute daily updates to agriculture ministries, national locust control centres and other partners through an online Locust Hub. This access to daily, updated on-the-ground information is critical to forecasters and decision makers as they manage migratory pests like locusts, which can increase 20-fold every three months and rapidly move across seas and continents. 

For the hard-to-reach areas, including some regions in Northern Kenya, FAO has been prototyping and will soon be introducing both rotary and fixed wing drones for surveillance. The drones, each with its unique strengths, are programmed to check for infestations and search large arid areas for green patches, which are prime feeding grounds for locusts. 

Keith Cressman, a Senior Locust Forecasting Officer at FAO indicated that although the Rotary wing drones have a limited range, they can hover in one place long enough to take detailed images. Field officers can stand nearby and analyse locust concentrations in real time. There might also be a role for them in treatment campaigns because of their precision. “We’re looking into how we might fit them with micro-sprayers and send them out on very targeted missions to treat small infestations that might otherwise be difficult to spray,” says Cressman. 

The fixed wing drones, on the other hand, can cover up to 100 kilometres in one flight, which makes them ideal for finding patches of green vegetation in vast deserts. “We are still in the experimental phase when it comes to drones, but it is clear that these kinds of tools will become more important in the years to come,” Cressman says. 

Venturing even higher in the sky, FAO has for long been utilizing satellites to acquire data to help predict locust movements. With the aid of new technology and reinvented old practices, countries will be better placed to respond to emergencies and crises like desert locusts’ invasion. 

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Beryl Opiyo

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