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Man versus Locust attacks

As the world is already battling the aftereffects of COVID-19, the bug invasion in Africa, Arabian Peninsula and South Asia have threatened food supply across the regions. The plague of Locust swarms started in 2019 and infested 23 countries by April 2020. However, the current travel and shipping restrictions have hindered the effects to control the infestation leading to fear of a looming famine.

What are Locust swarms?

Locusts are a species of short-horned grasshoppers which usually exhibit solitary behaviours. However, under certain circumstances, they could change their structural features and behaviour to function as a crowd. Swarming is a behaviour due to overcrowding often described by farmers as a flying black cloud.

A swarm of locust could consist of billions of locusts covering thousands of square kilometres of area. Several species of locusts are found in almost all continents of the world except in Antarctica and North America.

The well-known species for its ability to spread in a wide area are called the “desert locusts” which are currently on duty in India. Under the conditions of drought, the serotonin in the brains of these grasshoppers triggers behavioural changes in them resulting in abundant breeding. When these locusts meet, the released serotonin makes them mutually attractive which makes them stay as a swarm. They also become nomadic and gregarious so they travel a long distance and destroy the vegetation in wherever the place they settle in. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization states that a swarm of 40 million locusts can eat as much food as 35,000 people or six elephants.

History of Locust attacks.

The history of Locust attacks dates back to 2470 BC to 2220 BC where the Egyptians have carved sketches of locusts on tombs. The history records events of locust plagues which occurred after changes in climatic patterns.

The book of Exodus in the bible, the Iliad and the Quran mention the devastating plague of locusts. Records indicate that even the Chinese authorities appointed anti-locust officers in the 9th century BC itself.

Aristotle has studies the locusts and their breeding habits and Livy has recorder a devastating plague in Capua in 203 BC.

Throughout history, desert locusts plague outbreaks are reported in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Meanwhile, North America, South America, Asia and Australia, reports other species of locust outbreaks. And 173 outbreaks over 1924 years have been reported in China.

Beginning of the current Outbreak.

The current outbreaks of locust swarms have begun in 2018, following the heavy rains and cyclone Mekunu in Rab al Khali, the desert in the Sothern Arabian peninsula which covers parts of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen and Oman.

The space between dunes and ephemeral lakes have made it easier for the swarms to breed without being detected. The cyclone Luban which spawned in the Arabian Sea exacerbated the breed of desert locusts, enabling three wild generations to breed in just ninth months.

East Africa was the Epicenter of the outbreak being infested in January 2020, by desert locust swarms. Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and Uganda are on its knees as the locust attacks have jeopardized the livelihoods and food security of the people.

Scientists say that the unpredictable rainfalls and climatic patterns have made the locust breeding more favourable. Also, the officers at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) say “The next generation of swarms will be around late June or early part of July.” The threat is unbearable by the people in the Horn of Africa, in which more than 24 million are food insecure and some 12 million are internally displaced.

Asia on Attack

On November 2019, Karachi in Pakistan was infested by locusts for the first time since 1961. The Guardian reports the distress call of a Pakistani farmer Mir Gul Muhammed,

“I cultivated around 50 acres of cotton crops and all of them have been eaten and destroyed by locusts,” he said. “Besides cotton, my other crops – onion, chilli and tomato – have been affected badly too. It is a loss of around 10m rupees [£51,000]. As a farmer, it will take years to recover from this loss.”

Pakistan will incur losses of about £2bn in winter crops, such as wheat, and a further £2.3bn in the summer crops being planted now, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Pakistani Government declared a national emergency on February 1st to protect the crops and the livelihood of the farmers.

Locust swarms from Iran and Pakistan landed on India causing the worst infestation in 27 years. Reports say that vegetation in Western and Central India is destroyed and the estimate is 50,000 hectares of cropland. India is already battling the after-effects of COVID-19 threat and the aftermath of a sudden lockdown. The locust invasions have made the farmers lose hope of any bright future.

People in affected areas have started spraying gallons of insecticides and farmers in Rajasthan play loud music and make noise using utensils to drive the locust. Meanwhile, authorities in various parts of India have taken measures to control the locust attacks starting from tracking the movement of locust swarms to manufacturing bioinsecticides in Bio-control laboratories.

Sri Lankan farmers are warned on possible locust attacks as already Pakistan and India are attacked. Dr.Weerakoon the Director-General of the Department of Agriculture, says that all relevant parties in the country have been made aware of the threat. He further says that “ This type of locusts spread according to wind patterns, therefore, there is a possibility of locusts spreading to Sri Lanka given the changes to wind patterns”.

By Jumana Jabeer

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