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Technology Tools Help Combat Locust Swarms in East Africa

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and EarthRanger join forces to plan effective mitigation strategies for locust outbreaks.

Tree with locusts
Photo courtesy Bobby Neptune

Swarms of desert locusts threaten crop supplies during a global pandemic

Since late last year, billions of locusts have eaten a destructive path across Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. Increased rain and favorable weather have sparked swarms of locust not seen in Ethiopia and Somalia for 25 years and in Kenya for 70 years.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) says that the battle will be long and will require tight coordination to contain the upsurge. That’s because locust swarms can travel nearly 100 miles in a day and less than one square mile of locusts can eat the same amount of food as roughly 35,000 people. A new generation of desert locusts has the potential to grow almost 20 times in number. With many of these areas already facing threats to food security and livelihoods before COVID-19, FAO has been working around the clock with government officials, community members, and private partners to prevent additional crop and pasture damage and ensure these highly mobile swarms are tracked, monitored and sprayed with pesticides.

Monitoring locust swarms
Photo courtesy FAO/Luis Tato

FAO and EarthRanger collaborate to collect data and inform strategies to combat desert locusts.

FAO has collaborated with EarthRanger, a software tool built by Vulcan Inc. to integrate and display all historical and real-time field data of locusts. Started in 2015, EarthRanger is a technology solution that provides data visualization and analysis for protected area managers across the globe. The tool was built to empower Protected Area Managers across the world to promote wildlife conservation, support positive human-wildlife coexistence, and reverse the trend in wildlife poaching.

Now partnered with the FAO, EarthRanger is working to improve locust containment efforts. Based on the data collected and analyzed, local officers can make better-informed, real-time decisions. Additionally, more accurate forecasts can be made of locust behavior and movement, allowing for more effective, proactive mitigation strategies. This project is part of a larger effort by governments, conservancies, and individuals who are working with FAO to leverage technology to aid communities that have never seen locust swarms of this magnitude.

“From a scientific perspective, crises like these offer an opportunity to test new ideas and technologies and see how they can be used to better manage pests,” says Keith Cressman, FAO’s Senior Locust Forecaster.

Locust monitoring app
Photo Courtesy FAO/Luis Tato

51 Degrees Limited, a deployment partner of EarthRanger, has worked with Vulcan Inc. to create a configuration of EarthRanger with custom reports and processes specifically designed for locust data collection, as well as real-time monitoring of aircraft response.

To better help those responding to the locust swarms, EarthRanger has integrated with FAO’s eLocust3m, a mobile app released in February 2020 to provide a quick and easy way for those on the ground to report new locust sightings. eLocust3m was developed by Plant Village, a long-time partner of FAO, as a mobile phone version of eLocust3, a surveillance technology used to track infestations around the world. The app provides in-country communications and chat to share geo-referenced reports of locust movements and control operations in real-time. With the addition of EarthRanger, FAO as well as county and national authorities are able to get a birds-eye view of the situation and operationalize the data collected to inform mitigation activities.

“EarthRanger was developed to empower protected area managers and rangers to proactively plan security strategies, and to inform immediate reactions to prevent and mitigate threats to wildlife and their habitats,” said Jes Lefcourt, principal product manager of EarthRanger at Vulcan Inc. “We’re thrilled that this technology can also be applied to other, critically important challenges like FAO’s efforts to save communities’ food supplies.”

Northern Rangelands Trust
Photo courtesy Northern Rangelands Trust

The Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), a community of conservancies located in the northern and coastal areas of Kenya, has been using EarthRanger since 2016 to protect critically endangered elephants and rhinos. In early January of 2020, rangers started to report signs of locust-related activity and with the help of 51 Degrees Limited, NRT expanded the program to track and report on the swarms’ size, location, and breeding sites based on data from rangers as well as community members. Since the initial report from NRT, EarthRanger has logged more than 20,000 reports on locust activity to date. These reports are available to the FAO locust forecasters in real-time.

From the Sahel in West Africa to the Horn of Africa and Southeast Asia, the threat of desert locust isn’t just a short-term crisis. With more volatile weather patterns caused by climate change, these thick clouds of locust swarms are likely to be a reoccurring sight in the future. For this reason, the FAO is continuing to work with partners across the globe to share data, monitor spraying and evaluate preventative actions for next season. It is also collaborating with countries such as Kenya in developing capacity and infrastructure as well as mechanisms and programs to manage desert locust effectively on a sustained basis moving forward, to allow for rapid responses to future invasions. A well-coordinated effort among various partners—facilitated by tools such as EarthRanger—will be key to this.

Photo courtesy Bobby Neptune