Where is the anti-locusts squad?

Birds safeguard crops by effectively checking the growth of locusts. Habitat loss and illegal hunting of birds can be disastrous for agriculture

Birds and insects serve as biological control agents to safeguard crops and vegetation. As agricultural landscapes and practices change, the natural control agents are often ignored. Habitat loss, illegal hunting of certain avian species and loss of complex landscape structures in various eco-tones between farmland and other ecosystems as well as the increased use of agrochemicals have been linked to degradation of agricultural landscapes. A loss of avian diversity is followed by deleterious effects on crops and plant species.

Locust attacks have ravaged arid and semi-arid zones of the country due to the loss of their predatory species including birds, lizards, spiders and desert foxes which are active biological agents in controlling their population. The desert locusts, generally called grasshoppers, are profoundly gregarious and very devastating as pests. A locust swarm may consist of billions of locusts with as many as 80 million insects per square kilometre. Availability of suitable environment such as a wet winter and lack of frontline predators can trigger unprecedented increases in their population which render huge losses to agriculture.

Studies reveal that during a plague, some birds, which do not normally eat locusts, also include them in their diet.

Locusts thrive on vegetation and devour vast amounts of crops, orchards and plantations with sever socio-economic outcomes. Their recent attacks in Balochistan, Sindh, the Punjab and KP pose a serious threat to agriculture and food security in the region.

The Chinese government had planned to deploy ducks to counter the approaching swarm of locusts. Though climate change contributes to such invasion of locusts, the dwindling population of their predators hase also been a major cause of concern among conservationists.

Birds mostly consume green matter, seeds and insects. There is a good reason to believe that birds are potential biological agents and check the growth of locusts. It has been observed by many farmers that mice are eradicated in the fields through the use of pesticides which also harm the non-harmful insects that feed on harmful insects instead. This practice also causes elimination of birds like kites, hawks and crows that control pest growth in a natural way without any side effects on the agricultural ecosystem. Within the agriculture and ecosystem food chains, there are many birds that have established a heavily herbivorous diet.

Grey and black partridges, quails, sparrows and starlings, etc, help boost crop yields by consuming harmful insects. Young chicks mostly eat insects. They prefer farmlands as suitable habitat.

It is interesting to point out the cost-benefit ratio of bio-control programmes and the fertilizers application. The recent annual worldwide expenditure on fertilizer nitrogen exceeds $20 billion.

Agricultural landscapes serve as habitat for many wildlife species. The richness of these species varies in areas like cropped and non-cropped wetlands, ponds and pastures etcetera. Proper management of these areas would ensure preservation and restoration of wildlife species for better crop production as well as socio-economic development. The biological agents control pests at their grooming/larval stage.

The planetary health is deteriorating rapidly in the wake of unsustainable utilisation of natural resources at all levels. The ongoing locust attack may be seen as a revenge by the nature against the harmful human footprint.

With human penetration into the wilderness increasing on the pretext of developmental and commercial activities the natural world is shrinking. With the increase in negative interaction with nature, the frequency and severity of natural calamities will increase reciprocally.

To ensure prevalence of vital ecosystem services, it is imperative that the biodiversity of an area remain be protected from anthropogenic activities such as illegal hunting of avian diversity and wildlife, unsustainable agriculture and rapid urbanisation and industrialisation. Sustainability of natural resources is vital for a healthy environment.

The writer is a Divisional Forest Officer with the Wildlife Department, Peshawar

Where is the anti-locusts squad?