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Agressive locusts target India already ravaged by Covid-19 pandemic

Locusts invading India
Locusts invading India © RFI/Murali Krishnan

An invasion by desert locusts has hit large swathes of India in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, posing a threat to farming communities.

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Aggressive swarms of locusts have entered the western desert state of Rajasthan from adjoining areas in Pakistan over the past few weeks that have been giving sleepless nights to farmers and authorities.

Serious infestation of locusts

Already over 38,300 hectares in 22 out of 33 districts of Rajasthan are under locust attack, according to the state government. 

Swarms have also been reported from parts of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Vidharbha region of western Maharashtra. The first swarms were sighted along the India-Pakistan border on April 11, months ahead of the usual time of arrival.

“The swarms were aided by high-speed wind and thus they made their way to Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital. This is a huge invasion, not seen in nearly three decades. The swarms are very big,” K L Gurjar, deputy director of the agriculture ministry’s Locust Warning Organization told RFI.

The potential for locusts’ exponential growth and crop devastation has jeopardized the food and economic security of arid and semi-arid regions as well as agricultural powerhouses.

Scientists point out that this swarm originated in the Horn of Africa, where excess rains triggered a breeding boom. According to Indian experts, the swarm entering India now had another round of breeding in Baluchistan, Iran and Pakistan.

According to a report by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), desert locusts are breeding 400 times than usual due to favorable climatic conditions and this explosive multiplication may spell disaster for large parts of Asia and Africa.

A swarm can cover a distance of 15 km in a day and one that covers an area of a square kilometer can eat as much food as 35,000 people in terms of weight.

Central and state bodies have stepped up efforts to control the menace as it poses crop vulnerability and threat to food safety if the outbreak is not contained.

“Locusts have changed their nature and they are flying on heights more than they used to fly. It is becoming difficult for us to control. We are doing our best to control the situation,” said B R Kadwa, deputy director of the agriculture department.

“Drones are being used for aerial spraying of Malathion 96, an insecticide and a potentially toxic chemical for non-cropped areas,” he added.

Incursion can damage crops

Farmers say the locusts feed on nearly all green vegetation - leaves, flowers, bark, stems, fruit, and seeds - and crops including millet, rice and cotton.

The current locust attack has been categorized into three regions across the world by the FAO - the eastern region, including India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, the central region including countries in the Horn of Africa and the western region including west African countries.

Locust attacks have already wrecked pastures and crops across swathes in Africa, including Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Eritrea, and Djibouti. The migratory pests also penetrated into Tanzania, Uganda, and South Sudan, wiping out entire fields of maize, sorghum, and wheat crops.

The bigger problem for authorities in India will come once the present swarms breed. An adult female locust lays 80 to 90 eggs thrice in her three-month life cycle. If left uncontrolled, a swarm can grow exponentially to 40-80 million locusts per square kilometer.

“Locust invasions are not extraordinary occurrences but their recent attack in India is akin to an unprecedented plague-like situation,” said Anil Sharma, a desert locust specialist.

The situation is all the more alarming as it comes at a time when the affected states are already reeling under Covid-19 and the ongoing heat wave.

 

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