Why Locusts Would be Hawks

“War, huh, yeah
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing.”
Edwin Starr

It’s arguable that things aren’t as clear cut as Starr’s 1969 hit makes out – that in fact, it all depends on perspective. Take locusts for example: if they were able to have a perspective, they’d be inclined to see the positive side of military might and political strife.

Locusts have a tendency to thrive where chaos reigns. War is good for going biblical, and in complex modern conflicts, they could often be considered the only winners. The problem with them taking their spoils of war, from an admittedly anthropocentric point of view, is that they’re spoiling often already-strained lives along the way.

It is a tragic truth that some of the world’s poorest – and most politically unstable – countries fall in the heart of the age-old battle against the family Acrididae’s most notorious member.

Copulating_desert_locust_pair

Photo: Christiaan Kooyman/ Wikimedia Commons

Before we get into that, a slight clarification: locusts have very little in the way of hawkish tendencies when they’re on their own – they’re just solitary grasshoppers getting on with their lives. The problem is that they are the ultimate example of individuals which change their character in a group. When coming into close contact, for example in vegetation flushes after a drought, over a few generations, solitary becomes gregarious behaviour – and then comes potential trouble. War offers the chance to increase population density while no-one’s watching on. If caught too late, potentially catastrophic progress could be only at the whim of the wind.

At worst, locust swarms can reach hundreds of square miles in size, and travel vast distances. With each eating its weight in plants a day, the potential consequences are not hard to grasp.

But all is not lost. The fight to curtail locust upsurges brings out a gregarious side to entomologists, too. The field is often seen by outsiders as hermetic – but controlling locust populations is the definition of applied entomology, gone geopolitical and by its very nature, public.

8675483776_0afaf03e12_k

Photo: ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano. Editorial use only. Copyright FAO.

Annie Monard has been at the forefront of the human-locust struggle for over two decades at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). For her team, tackling the desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) in particular, is a never-ending and sometimes perilous mission.

“We balance the situation in a country when there are conflicts or instability,” says Monard. “We use information we can get in the neighbouring countries because what always has to be present in mind is that locusts are a trans-boundary pest. Generally, when there are locust issues, it is immediately in three, four countries.”

FAO has three Commmissions to cover S. gregaria’s huge distribution area. One of the three covers West and Northwest Africa – a region which includes Libya and Mali, two countries with current active conflict.

Mali is one of four countries in the region with permanent S. gregaria breeding populations. With access to the northern part of the country currently impossible, monitoring relies entirely on reports from locals and retired staff living in that area. These can be delayed or incomplete, but it’s something. At the same time, surveys have been intensified in bordering areas of neighbouring countries.

Instability can breed a pragmatic sort of creativity, and it is in evidence here. Soldiers in the national military have been given basic training to report on locust sightings, giving some added, combat-style ‘boots on the ground’ to the intelligence-gathering effort.

But there is conflict and there is conflict – and Yemen currently represents the gravest end of the spectrum. “Forget everything,” says Monard. “The same message is coming back: no surveys were carried out due to insecurity. So I mean, there is nothing. It is not possible to do the basic work in that country.”

When upheaval comes, agricultural budgets are often the first raided – as was the case during Madagascar’s military coup in 2009. Monitoring stopped, locusts bred unwatched, and populations surged quickly.

In frontline countries – those with permanent locust habitats and breeding areas – the aim is to survey as thoroughly as possible, aided by technology such as satellite imaging, drones and the FAO’s elocust system, which allows national field staff to input standardised data. If locusts would have a preference for states of war, the human counterinsurgency effort is becoming increasingly sophisticated.

Timing is everything in this war-within-wars. There’s no use trying to wipe out every locust, so you have to know when there’s enough massing to justify a strike. “We advocate a locust preventive control strategy relying on monitoring, early warning and early reaction,” added Monard. “Our aim is to try and be as proactive as possible – not acting as ‘firemen’.”

Though this human Vs. insect struggle offers no prospect of a definitive winner, and containment the only realistic prospect, rarely has entomology been so vital.

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