What happened to the Duck Army?

Photo Credit: Nature.com Pakistan declared a state of emergency in late February.

At some point in the last few weeks a picture likely flitted across your screen of hundreds of fuzzy brown heads with the words “Duck Army.” The BCC reported that China had proposed to send 100,000 ducks to Pakistan to combat their locust problem. Locust swarms have been a problem for years in Africa and the Middle East. In fact, in 2019, a swarm three times the size of NYC (!) occupied a portion of Kenya.

Scientists work to control these outbreaks, but the last three breeding cycles have combined with factors that prevent or circumvent control measures. Cyclones and rainfall create a moist soil that is ideal for egg laying, while war and travel bans have made the region inaccessible to humanitarian and research workers. Underfunding prevents effective interventions, meaning that countries must rely on cheap and fast-acting pesticides that could cause collateral damage to the crops and people they are trying to defend.

In 2020, these combined factors have created the worst swarms in 70 years. Pakistan declared a state of emergency in late February. Locust feast on crops, consuming as much as 35,000 people can in one day and traveling 90 miles. This poses a large threat to developing countries like Pakistan where 20% of the GDP is agriculture. The FAO estimates that desert locust affects the livelihood of 10% of the world’s population.

China offered to help their neighbor with “biological weapons.” That’s right, their ducks are classified as biological weapons. “Rafts” of ducks have been used since ancient times to combat locust, and recently in a 2000 Chinese outbreak. However, for all this talk, it seems that the model has not been tested on this scale. The ducks were first deployed to China’s western Xinjiang province for a trial run.

Not everyone agrees that the ducks are a good idea. Zhang Long, a professor at China Agriculture University, spoke about his concern with the Pakistani climate: “Ducks rely on water, but in Pakistan’s desert areas the temperature is very high.”
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Photo Credits: Arshad Butt, Associated Press

But the AP would shortly release that the duck talk was just a rumor. It’s unclear if the “test” deployment ever materialized. Regardless of the climate suitability, Keith Cressman points out that the math just doesn’t add up. The army of 100,000 ducks can only eat up to 20 million locust per day, meaning it would take roughly 5,000 days to eat the current swarm. Locusts have lifespans of three to six months and reproduce at a rate of 10-16 fold. With this data, it’s easy to see that the duck plan is completely untenable. While ducks can’t solve the immediate locust crisis, they are essential workers on many small-scale agricultural enterprises, including this South African vineyard.

So, what now? Affected countries are turning to other solutions, albeit less cute. Commercial pesticides and drones more recently have been considered. Once the outbreak is controlled, scientists will likely turn back to research on biopesticides that target the locust specifically, including the fungus metarhizium anisopliae that kills locust by growing inside them. Unfortunately, these are not available in the quantities needed to address the current swarms and act slowly to kill the locust, prolonging the damage and allowing more locust to lay eggs.

Despite research and control measures, aggravated natural disasters will continue increase with climate change. Increased temperatures increase water evaporation and create the heavy rainfalls and other conditions that imbalance our ecologic system. Control over the swarms and the other downstream effects of climate change is more important than ever in countries that rely heavily on agriculture and are suffering from the economic burden of a pandemic.

Kate, USA 

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