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A renowned locust expert returns to his roots to help Kazakhstan battle the pests

06 мая 2014, 12:07

After getting his bachelors degree in entomology from Russia’s St. Petersburg State University, Alex Latchininsky spent 15 years helping the Soviet Union combat an age-old pest: locusts.

Most of his work during the 1980s and early 1990s was in the Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan socialist republics.

In a lucky break for Kazakhstan’s agricultural sector, he would renew his ties with the country after becoming a Ph.D. student at the University of Wyoming in 1995 and a professor there in 2003.

In fact, he’s helping Kazakhstan battle a locust infestation that’s been severe – and growing – the past few years. This year’s threat will be the worst in more than a decade, experts predict.

Exactly how big will become apparent in May and June as most of the locusts hatch. But the preliminary estimate is that the pests will infest 4 million hectares.

Kazakhstan couldn’t have a more renowned expert than Alex helping it. He’s given locust-control training sessions in 21 countries on six continents. And he recently earned the University of Wyoming’s coveted Award for Faculty Achievement in Internationalization.

The tribute that Anne Alexander, director of the university’s International Programs Office, gave Alex was amazing. She noted that he has “significantly improved agricultural sustainability on nearly every continent on the globe and quite literally helped save millions of people from starvation.”

Alex was one of the experts presiding at a United Nations-sponsored regional locust-control seminar in Bishkek in 2010. With him is Annie Monard, head of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s  locust-control program.

Alex was one of the experts presiding at a United Nations-sponsored regional locust-control seminar in Bishkek in 2010. With him is Annie Monard, head of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s locust-control program. Photo courtesy of Alex Latchininsky.

Alex, whose expertise led to the United Nations hiring him as a global consultant in 2000, briefed me about Kazakhstan’s locust threat in a recent Skype interview.

Here are the highlights:

- Kazakhstan has one of the world’s most difficult locust-control challenges because of its sheer size. As the ninth-largest country in the world, it must do locust control on a lot more land than other countries. 

- Kazakhstan has a good corps of locust experts, but they’re stretched thin because of the scope of the challenge.

- The amount of land that locusts have infested in Kazakhstan jumped by a whopping 20 percent between 2012 and 2013 -- from 2.3 million to 3.7 million hectares. Estimates are that it will reach 4 million hectares this year.

That is a huge threat to Kazakhstan’s wheat crop in particular.

- Kazakhstan set “what absolutely has to be a world record” by treating 8 million hectares for locusts in a few weeks in the late spring and early summer of 2000.

- Kazakhstan has three of the world’s dozen species of locusts. Italian locusts prefer steppeland. Moroccan locusts prefer the desert-like conditions of southern Kazakhstan. And migratory locusts prefer wetlands around rivers and lakes.

- Climate change is increasing the locusts’ range in Kazakhstan. The Moroccan locust, which was once confined to lowlands and foothills in southern Kazakhstan, is found further north and higher in the mountains these days. Italian locusts are gradually expanding their habitat further north as temperatures rise.

- Climate change has led to the migratory locust raising young twice a year instead of once – a very worrisome development.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization is sponsoring Alex’s consulting work with Kazakhstan. It’s part of a five-year locust monitoring and control effort, begun in 2008, that the agency is conducting in nine countries in the former Soviet Union and Afghanistan.

Fittingly, the first U.N. consulting job that the St. Petersburg native did was in Kazakhstan in 2000.

A key goal of the Central Asia and Caucasus program is to persuade the 10 countries involved to adopt a standardized locust monitoring and control system.

The nine former Soviet countries are Russia, the Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and the Caucasus nations of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Alex noted that the former Soviet Union had an excellent locust-control program, thanks to the pioneering work of Russian expert Boris Uvarov. Although Uvarov left the Soviet Union in the 1920s, he had a worldwide impact on the battle against locusts as head of the renowned London-based Anti-Locust Research Center in the 1950s and 1960s.

The independent nations that arose from the ashes of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s suddenly found themselves without locust control programs.

They scrambled to start them, but some had fewer resources than others.

This led to locusts gaining a foothold in resource-poor countries, then spreading to neighboring countries.

“Locusts do not observe political borders,” Alex said.

That has generated finger-pointing among neighboring countries about the source of infestations, he said. He noted that Boris Uvarov once observed wryly that the prevailing attitude is “our neighbors are always the source of the locusts.”

At times there has been tension between Russia and Kazakhstan over the source of infestations in northern Kazakhstan and adjacent areas of Russia, Alex said. But a bilateral locust-control agreement and frequent meetings between Kazakhstan and Russian officials has helped defuse that issue, he said.

A locust swarm in Astrakhan, southern Russia.

A locust swarm in Astrakhan, southern Russia. Photo by Irina Zanchipova

Alex is in constant email communication with locust experts in Kazakhstan as part of his U.N. consulting gig. He has also held workshops once a year for them and experts from the other countries in the Central Asia and Caucasus project.

The meetings, which have been held in a different country each year, are aimed at exchanging information and ideas about locust-infestation prevention, monitoring and control.

Like a lot of other things these days, locust control has gone high-tech. For example, Alex teachers experts in countries where he consults to use satellite images to track weather and vegetation patterns that can produce locust swarms.

After this training, a lot of countries began using GPS equipment to help them do their locust surveys.

Some of the workshops that Alex teaches involve “training the trainers.” The trainees go back to their outposts and pass on their newly acquired knowledge to their colleagues.

“The window of opportunity to control locusts is narrow” each year, Alex pointed out. It’s only three to four weeks in the nymph stage after the insects hatch. “Once they become adults, it’s very difficult” to combat them, he said.

Imagine the challenge Kazakhstan faces in years when the locust threat is at its most formidable: treating millions of hectares in a month, Alex said.

What made Kazakhstan’s record of treating 8 million hectares in 2000 so amazing was that it was done in a very compressed time frame – for the most part, June and July.

Alex said weather is the major determinant of the scope of a locust infestation. A warm fall followed by a warm, dry spring is the worst-case scenario. A warm fall means a lot of the locusts can lay their eggs before dying. A warm, dry spring gives their young the best chance of surviving after hatching.

Alex said climate change has allowed Italian locusts – Kazakhstan’s biggest scourge – to move further north and Moroccan locusts to higher elevations from their traditional habitat around Shymkent and Taraz.

Even worse, climate change is allowing migratory locusts, which thrive in marshy areas, to produce two generations a year. One hatch is in May and another in July, Alex said.

“This is a disaster for locust control,” he said.

Migratory-locust control poses an environmental dilemma, he added. Migratories “are confined mostly to river delta areas with reed stands.” The problem is that because of the tremendous biodiversity of wetlands, they are particularly susceptible to pesticide damage. 

Most migratory locusts live around Lake Balkhash in the southeast, Lake Alakol in the east and the Ural River in the west.

Alex Latchininsky wears a protective hat while do field work with Uzbek locust experts near the Aral Sea.

Alex Latchininsky wears a protective hat while doing field work with Uzbek locust experts near the Aral Sea. Photo courtesy of Alex Latchininsky.

Locust-control experts used a DDT-like pesticide to fight locusts during Soviet times “But even now we can find this pesticide in the body of locusts,” Alex said.

“Now they’re using pesticides less harmful to the environment,” he said. “They’re also starting to use biological means to combat locusts, but these are too expensive and too slow.”

The biological weapon is a fungus that attacks locusts and grasshoppers but not other species.

“One thing we want to do is standardize pesticide use across countries,” rather than having each country using a different pesticide regimen, Alex said.

A lot of his email exchanges with officials of Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Agriculture involves pesticide use, particularly their impacts on “human health and the environment,” he said.


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