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[ANTANANARIVO, MADAGASCAR] The locust swarms that devastated crops in Madagascar last summer were predicted by the country's scientists several months in advance, but lack of government intervention meant control measures were not taken in time, they have said.

"We warned the government [as early as February] the locust invasion would be out of control by August–September if there was no concrete intervention in the field," said Rado Solohery Ramboa, chief of the administration and finance department at the National Anti-Locust Center (CNA), which gathers data on factors that affect locust swarm formations.  

But the government froze the budget for the centre's work for the first part of the year, due to socio-economic problems following the coup in March 2009, he said.

Since May, Madagascar has suffered locust invasion swarms of billions of insects. Around 120,000 hectares of crops in the south of the country and hundreds of hectares in the central highlands were destroyed in August alone, according to the CNA.

The swarms also disrupted field studies, delaying agricultural research, Yvonne Rabenantoandro, science director at the National Centre of Applied Research for Rural Development (FOFIFA), based in Antananarivo, told SciDev.Net.  But they also enabled researchers to update the locust alert system, learn more about the biology of locusts and push on with the development of biological control of the pests.

Since January 2006, FOFIFA, the Agricultural Research for Development (CIRAD) centre, based in Paris, France, and the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe), based in Nairobi, Kenya, have been studying different fungi that could biologically control the locusts.

The centres have developed an efficient new biopesticide from Metarhizium anisopliae var. acridum (SP9), an indigenous species of fungus from Madagascar, scientists said. The compound is undergoing authorisation for use in controlling locust swarms and, if approved, could help cut the costs of importing pesticides.  

Until the biopesticide is ready the National Colloquium on the Preventive Fight Against Locusts in Madagascar, held in Antananarivo last September, recommended the use of Green Muscle, an authorised product developed in West Africa containing Metarhizium anisopliae (IMI330189).

Although field tests show a high efficacy for this biopesticide, its introduction in Madagascar requires preliminary testing to better understand its virulence and potential risks, said Nguya Kalemba Maniania, a researcher at icipe.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization also warned in early August of the potential for swarms to reach plague proportions unless urgent control measures take place and has since been working with the organisations in Madagascar to control the swarms.

"We need to better understand how and why swarms form, and develop better predictive measures," Iain Couzin, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University, United States, told SciDev.Net. "But prediction has to be backed with sufficient resources to take preventative action."