Muhammad Niaz is Divisional Forest Officer Wildlife at the Wildlife Department, Peshawar and is an animal enthusiast.
Only recently, the scourge of locust infestation plagued farmers in arid
and semi-arid areas around the country with swarms of locusts descending onto fields of crops and destroying swathes of farmland in their wake.
In the grand scheme of things, the significance of birds, animals, insects and microorganisms in soil cannot be overlooked in maintaining the natural balance by virtue of their ecological and socio-economic role. Just as the vast and complex mechanisms of the human body are performing their functions, so are these beings.
Birds and insects serve as biological control agents
to safeguard crops and vegetation in the context
of agriculture. However, due to altered agricultural landscapes and increased manmade practices, the need to rely on natural biological control agents is the last resort in the contemporary agricultural system. Habitat loss, illegal hunting of avian species and degradation of land
in the loss of complex landscape structures in different ecozones between farmland and other ecosystems as well as the increased use of agrochemicals have been linked to the reduction in species richness in agricultural areas. Loss of avian diversity subsequently has had a somewhat disastrous effect on crops and plant species.
Only recently, the scourge of locust infestation plagued farmers in arid and semi-arid areas around the country with swarms of locusts descending on fields of crops and destroying swathes of farmland in their wake. This can be attributed to the loss of their predator species including birds, lizards, spiders and desert foxes, which are active biological agents in controlling pest populations. Desert locusts, which are generally known as grasshoppers,
are devastating pests that cause massive financial losses and significantly hamper agricultural produce. A swarm
of locusts may consist of billions with as many as 80 million per square kilometre. The availability of a suitable environment such as a wet winter and the lack of frontline predators triggered an unprecedented increase in their population, which has rendered huge losses to the agricultural sector.
Locusts thrive on vegetative matter and their swarms significantly affect and devour vast extents of crops, orchards and plantations with severe socio-economic
ramifications. Recent attacks in Balochistan, Sindh, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have inflicted tremendous damage to crops and large scale monetary losses in the agriculture sector, undermining food security in the region. Climate change is also a contributing factor for such invasions while the dwindling population of their predators has also been observed to be a major cause of concern among conservationists.
Dwindling avian diversity in the wild, in the wake of illegal hunting and trapping, has been one of the factors along with climate change, heavy rains during breeding seasons of locusts, etc affecting the reduced natural predation of locusts. Birds mostly consume green matter
like seeds and insects, therefore, there is good reason to believe that birds are potential biological agents to check the growth of locusts in an area. With a dwindling population of birds, locust attacks prevail with greater intensity.
Every year thousands of birds are illegally killed, weakening the resilience of the ecosystem because of infestations such as those witnessed recently.
It has been observed by many farmers that mice are eradicated through the use of pesticides
in the fields, but this practice comes at a price where non-harmful insects are also impacted and killed. This practice has a dire consequence, which can eliminate bird species like kites, hawks and crows that feed on them and control pest growth in a natural way without any side effects on the agricultural ecosystem. With the use of pesticides and new agricultural methods, the ecosystem and food chains have also witnessed a shift as there are many birds that have a herbivorous diet.
Moreover, partridges like the grey partridge and black partridge; quails, sparrows and other birds like starlings are beneficial to the crop yield
as they consume the bulk of harmful insects naturally. Young chicks eat mostly insects and prefer farmlands as a suitable habitat.
It is interesting to point out the cost-benefit ratio of bio-control programmes with the application and use of fertilizers. The annual worldwide expenditure for nitrogen fertilizer exceeds US$ 20 billion. Biological control proves to be very successful economically even when the method
Agricultural landscapes serve as a habitat for many wildlife species and the richness of these species is affected by areas such as cropped
and uncropped land, wetlands, ponds and pastures. Proper management and consideration of these areas would ensure the preservation, restoration and benefit of wildlife species for better crop production as well as socio-economic development. This will help biological agents control pests at their larval stage.
As the natural world suffers in the wake of unsustainable utilization of natural resources in this era of technological development, events like the infestation of locusts may be better termed as nature’s revenge for human activity that is adversely shaping our ecological future at the cost of deteriorating biodiversity. In fact, the human footprint on the environment is increasing at a surging pace, which ultimately strikes back in the form of epidemics, infestations, floods and climate change with severe health and economic impacts that threaten the survival of biodiversity and food security in the long run.
Moreover, to ensure the prevalence of vital ecosystem services, it is imperative that biodiversity of an area remains unthreatened
in the face of anthropogenic activities such as illegal hunting of avian diversity and wildlife, unsustainable agriculture and expansion of urbanization and industrialization into areas inhabited by wildlife. Sustainability of natural resources is vital for a healthy environment and its development and we should all play our part in conserving nature and protecting not only our country but the world.