Africa Fights Locust Plagues

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"Part of our forecasting system is looking at satellite information on vegetation and identifying desert areas where locusts are likely to be found," Elliott said. "We provide information to countries, so that they can target their surveys to those areas. It doesn't always work, but it has proven useful."

Approximately 42,500 square miles (11 million hectares) of African land was sprayed last year with fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

While the process may control locusts, it also introduces large amounts of environmentally harmful pesticides. It's a problem the FAO says it is attempting to address.

"Most of the spraying has been done with conventional organophosphate pesticides," Elliott noted. "The FAO is trying to promote use of more environmentally friendly pesticides. But it's taking longer than we'd like to get it off of the ground."

One possible alternative control method uses a naturally occurring fungus, Metarhizium anisopliae, to create a bio-pesticide dubbed green muscle. The fungus is deadly to locusts and grasshoppers but has proven harmless to other insects, plants, and animals—including people.

"Conveyor Belts"

Elliott reports that, while the desert locust plague situation remains serious, hopes are high that heavy control operations in fall 2004 have made an impact.

"We don't know whether we could be into a plague by September of this year, or if by May the whole thing will have petered out," he said.

While controlling locust plagues is the FAO's first priority, understanding the ecological role of the massive outbreaks is also important. Thus far, the latter goal has proven somewhat elusive.

"We can think of locust swarms as giant conveyor belts of nutrients that move tons and tons of organic material from one place to another," Lockwood said. "Frankly we have a poor understanding of how this fits into nutrient cycling in Africa."

Although not fully understood, the massive outbreaks are generally believed to have an important ecological role.

"You could think of a locust outbreak as a sort of metabolic wildfire. We don't have the capability to do it, but … the thought of totally eliminating locust outbreaks would give most ecologists a shiver up their spine," he said. "We just don't know enough about the possible effects."

More on TV
For more on this subject, watch the National Geographic Explorer documentary The Perfect Swarm, airing Sunday, January 9, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel.

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