A plague of locusts is threatening croplands in northern Kenya with Wajir and Mandera Counties reporting massive invasion.
The voracious pest is quickly destroying the grazing lands which is a source of livelihoods for residents of these regions.
Farmers are helpless against the swarms, since they lack insect-fighting techniques, effective insecticides and early warning and monitoring systems.
It is believed that these insects migrated from Somaliland where they have damaged crops and pastures.
This was after an earlier warning by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) that a desert locust invasion, which had hit Ethiopia and Somalia, would attack other East Africa countries. Traveling in swarms of several thousands, the pests can destroy hundreds of acres within hours.
Swarming occurs when a period of drought is followed by good rains and rapid vegetation growth. These conditions trigger a period of increased breeding and overpopulation, and the increased contact with other locusts can lead to the formation of large swarms. This behaviour makes locusts more dangerous than grasshoppers.
Although locust numbers decrease during droughts, outbreaks often follow floods and cyclones.
If not controlled, these outbreaks can lead to plagues. Temperatures determine the speed of locust development and warmer conditions can possibly reduce the incubation and maturation periods and lead to a rise in the number of locust generations in a year.
Experts say early detection is a key to keeping the locusts under control. Because this is a huge matter beyond smallholder farmers, the State needs to invest in early warning systems. The government should strengthen regional and national control mechanisms for early warning and detection.
Monitoring and fighting locust plagues requires significant regional cooperation, as the insect knows no boundaries.
Satellites can be used to monitor the conditions that can lead to swarming locusts, such as soil moisture and green vegetation. Information on soil moisture will indicate how much water is available for eventual vegetation growth and favourable locust breeding conditions, and can therefore forecast the presence of locusts 2 to 3 months in advance. The additional time is essential for the local national authorities to organise preventive measures.
Use of drones and satellites
The government should train specialised survey and control teams to scout the areas of possible infestations. To find insect infestations, these teams rely on their own knowledge and information from farmers.
This knowledge is combined with up-to-date satellite imagery indicating rainfall and green vegetation, allowing the teams to identify potential breeding sites and growing locust infestations. The successful prevention of desert locust plagues relies on regular monitoring in the desert, early warning, and timely response. If a local plague is not detected on time, it has devastating effect on livelihoods.
To control these swarms, use of remote sensing technology and ground surveys to identify and eliminate locust breeding areas is encouraged.
Drones could play an integral role in identifying and preventing desert locust swarms in the fight against this dangerous migratory pest. Drone technology could provide survey and control teams with an inexpensive and efficient method of searching for these vicious insects.
The drones could be used to automatically collect high-resolution imagery of green, vegetated areas potentially affected by locusts after which survey teams would be able to use the data to identify areas that seem most likely to harbour locusts, allowing them to travel directly to suspicious locations.
Control operations would become safer and more effective, as human operators would no longer be exposed to potentially dangerous pesticides while eliminating the insects. Pest control operations would also become more effective, since drones would be able to spray infestations precisely, using the correct pesticide dose and methodology. More efforts should be made to maintain awareness among governments and local populations of the threat of locust plagues and how best to prevent and respond to future disasters.
[Writer is an expert on sustainable agriculture]