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Bell aircrafts help safeguard food and agriculture amid historic locust infestation

Over the last 12 months, food security has been under serious threat from devastating locust swarms, destroying crops from East Africa to the Arabian Gulf

With experts warning of a ‘rolling emergency’ that could endanger harvests across the regions for the rest of the year, governments and international organisations face a herculean challenge in controlling the infestations. Aircrafts from Bell, the US-based helicopter manufacturer, have been playing a crucial role in the joint efforts to fight this ancient plague.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, desert locusts – the destructive infestations of which cause major crop damage – are grasshopper species that live largely alone until a combination of conditions promotes breeding and leads to the formation of massive swarms.

The current crisis in the region began in October 2019 with the formation of swarms along the Red Sea coastal plains in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea and Sudan, spreading eastward across the Arabian Peninsula and further south in Africa in the following months.

By January, Kenya, one of the countries hardest hit by the crisis, had experienced its worst outbreak of desert locusts in 70 years. To address this issue, the authorities hired South African helicopter operator BAC Helicopters, who had recently purchased three Bell 206L-4 helicopters, to conduct the Emergency Desert Locust Survey and Control operation in the affected part of Kenya.

Helicopters were tasked with surveying vast areas throughout the counties of Marsabit and Turkana in northern Kenya, locating and mapping locust swarms that threatened food security throughout the region. The 206L-4’s were each equipped with specialised agricultural survey equipment, the FDC Barrier Filter and the Satellite Tracking System.

Essential data collected by the survey helicopters were then transferred to both fixed-wing and helicopter spraying aircraft, allowing them to precisely target the specific areas where the locust swarms were present.

Sameer Rehman, managing director of Africa and the Middle East, Bell, commented, “With a number of countries in eastern Africa and some parts of the Middle East at ongoing risk, the FAO has estimated that a locust control plan would cost US$76mn to secure agriculture in the affected region. Bell understands the need to protect the food source of these regions, and we’re pleased our products can be essential tools in the collective mission to eradicate the problem.

“When it comes to food security, the stakes are very high, so the reliability and capability of every tool used in the fight against locust swarms is paramount. The Bell 206, and newer light aircraft like the Bell 505 has shown time and again that they can be trusted to operate in high temperatures and with heavy payloads, providing a capable defence wherever the swarms may be present.”

In most years, desert locust swarms tend to die out in the dry season. However, with unusually high rainfall in 2020 in some regions, the exponential population growth has not decreased, creating a spectre of further swarms over the coming months.

FAO states that the countries most affected by the locust situation are Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia in Africa, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and parts of the UAE and Oman in the Middle East.