As Kieran Avery peers out of the plane’s window, he sees an incredible sight that he can only describe as a powerful waterfall fluttering through the air.
In reality, it’s a desert locust outbreak the likes of which Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia haven’t seen in decades.“You can’t really understand the scale until you’re on the ground and surrounded by them,” said Avery, who oversees livestock and water as director of natural resource management for Northern Rangelands Trust. “The swarms containing millions to billions of locust can cover up to 10 kilometers squared.”
Officials from the UN’s Food and Agriculture (FAO) agency warn that, if left unchecked, the “unprecedented” desert locust swarms—which in one day can fly nearly 100 miles and eat the same amount of food as roughly 35,000 people—could continue to grow and descend to other countries in East Africa.
“This has become a situation of international dimensions that threatens the food security of the entire subregion,” said FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu in a statement.
But Avery has an unlikely ally in his efforts to protect 42,000 square kilometers of Kenya’s northern and coastal community land.
Using technology they employ to track and protect their critically endangered black rhinos, elephants and other species at risk, Avery and Northern Rangelands Trust technology partner, 51 Degrees Limited, are using EarthRanger to help track the locust swarms. This real-time monitoring software can visualize the swarms by tracking its size, location, breeding sites and collect any other useful information.
They’re able to do all this thanks to some innovative crowdsourcing. A network of government officials, local community members and private organizations are feeding eyewitness reports connected with GPS coordinates back to Northern Rangelands Trust and 51 Degrees Limited. Whether it’s through a designated locust hotline, radio communication from rangers in the field or even a WhatsApp chat group, each report they’re entering into EarthRanger will help build a fuller picture of the outbreak. Since beginning this process in early January, they’ve received over 160 reports, which are providing actionable insights for the next day’s activities.
“EarthRanger has been invaluable to combating the outbreak,” said Barry Cork of 51 Degrees Limited. “Being able to visualize the data is giving us the ability to provide nearby communities with early warnings and alerts to help them be proactive rather than reactive.”
While officials in Somalia have declared the locust infestation a national emergency and locust swarms continue to increase in Ethiopia, thankfully northern Kenya has seen minimal damage to crops. But Avery and Cork say that if current trends continue, the outbreak could hit some of the main farming communities in Kenya.
“I am optimistic about this outbreak because we have a high level of visibility into it,” said Cork. “If we can increase the situational awareness at a national level and put measures and systems in place, then we can tackle this locust crisis.”