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Explained: Why India has a desert locust problem this year; what’s the way forward

Locust Attack in India: The danger from the swarms is not now, but when they breed after July with the new kharif crop.

Written by Harish Damodaran | New Delhi |
Updated: June 2, 2020 8:14:18 am
Locust attack, locusts in cities, express explained, why are locusts coming to cities Swarm of locusts in a field in Damoh, Madhya Pradesh, on May 27. (Photo: PTI)

As their name suggests, desert locusts normally live and breed in semi-arid/desert regions. For laying eggs, they require bare ground, which is rarely found in areas with dense vegetation. So, they are more likely to breed in Rajasthan than in the Indo-Gangetic plains or Godavari and Cauvery delta.

While green vegetation is good for hopper development – the stage between the nymph that has hatched and before its turning into a winged adult moth – such cover isn’t widespread enough in deserts to allow growth of large locust populations.

Locusts aren’t dangerous as long as they are individual hoppers/moths or small isolated groups of insects, in what is called the “solitary phase”. It is when their population grows to large numbers – the resultant crowding induces behavioral changes and transformation from the “solitary” to “gregarious” phase – that they start forming swarms. A single swarm contains up to 40-80 million adults in one square km and these can travel up to 150 km in one day.

Also Read | As the locusts fly in, memories, and fears, of a recurring ‘plague’

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The above large-scale breeding and swarm formation, however, takes place only when conditions turn very favourable in their natural habitat, i.e. desert and semi-arid regions. These areas should get rains that will produce enough green vegetation to enable both egg laying and hopper development.

It appears that such conditions have been there since the start of this year. The main locust breeding areas in the Horn of Africa, Yemen, Oman, Southern Iran and Pakistan’s Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces recorded widespread rains in March-April. East Africa, in fact, had its wettest rainfall season in over four decades even during October-November.

Explained: Why we have a desert locust problem this year and what’s the way forward Locusts aren’t dangerous as long as they are individual hoppers/moths or small isolated groups of insects, in what is called the “solitary phase”.

The hopper bands and immature adult groups resulting from this large-scale breeding – itself a product of unusually heavy rains – are the ones that started arriving in Rajasthan during the first fortnight of April. The Union Agriculture Ministry’s Locust Warning Organisation then observed “low-density I & II instar gregarious/transient hoppers” at Jaisalmer and Suratgarh in Rajasthan and Fazilka in Punjab adjoining the Indo-Pakistan border.

Subsequently, there has been arrival of swarms from the main spring-breeding areas. And these swarms have come not only to western Rajasthan, but also moved to the eastern parts of the state and even Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Much of this movement, it seems, was aided by the strong westerly winds from Cyclone Amphan in the Bay of Bengal.

Thus, we have had two meteorological drivers behind the current locust invasions:  one, unseasonal heavy rains in the main spring-breeding tracts in March-April, and, two, strong westerly winds.

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The United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation has further said that “several successive waves of invasions can be expected until July in Rajasthan with eastward surges across northern India as far as Bihar and Orissa”. But after July, there would be westward movements of the swarms, as they will return to Rajasthan on the back of the changing winds associated with the southwest monsoon.

Explained: Why we have a desert locust problem this year and what’s the way forward The movement of locusts. (Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN)

An important thing to note is the current swarms are all of “immature locusts”. These are locusts that voraciously feed on vegetation, but have not yet laid eggs. Once they start breeding, the swarm movement will cease or slow. Also, the breeding will happen mainly in Rajasthan. So far, the swarms haven’t caused much damage, since the rabi crop has already been harvested and farmers are yet to start kharif sowings.

Also Read | Locust attack tracker: Where the hoppers are headed and how states are battling the plague

One reason for the swarms migrating eastwards – normally they are seen in India only after July post the monsoon’s arrival, while confining themselves mostly to the desert areas of West Rajasthan where they breed and exist as solitary insects or in isolated groups – has been their search for food. Remember, these insects need to munch enough – roughly their own weight in fresh food every day – before being ready for mating. With no crops in fields now, they have ended up invading green spaces, including parks, in Jaipur and orange orchards near Nagpur.

The danger would be when the swarms that have already or are about to come will start breeding. A single gregarious female locust can lay 60-80 eggs three times during its average life cycle of 90 days. If their growth is coterminous with that of the kharif crop, we could well have a situation similar to what maize, sorghum and wheat farmers of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia experienced in March-April.

A proactive exercise of control, through aerial spraying of ultra-low volume of concentrated insecticides in all potential breeding sites, is required, along with continuous monitoring of the crops during the ensuing kharif season. Thankfully, there is enough lead time for the government to avert a crisis it cannot afford – on top on dealing with Covid-19 and an unprecedented economic contraction.

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