I skirted the edge of this work, as NRI had no major involvement in campaigns and research when I first arrived, but instead were given to advising on biogeographical matters. But the work started to increase while I was there. Two colleagues of mine; Andrea Turner and Phil Miles, who were very influential on me during my first couple of years at NRI, were brought in to analyse the 1985-1987 plague which had caught the locust world by surprise. There had been no plagues for about thirty years and many in country control teams had been scaled back to nearly nothing. Then this plague came up and there were few defences. It built up, raged for a year and receded again causing huge economic loss in several countries, wiping out many farmers livelihoods in the process. It was seen that although it was carefully put together and cross referenced, the old archive was not particularly useful for quick analysis, and the rapid computerisation of the world could be of assistance. Two GIS came out of it, one built by Edinburgh University for FAO called SWARMS. I always used the analogy that this was taking Joyce’s brain and putting it into a computer. Joyce had an incredible knowledge not only of the geography of locusts from west to east, north to south, but also an intimate knowledge of every person who worked on locusts, who the charlatans were and who did good science. Although the system was carefully catalogued, the only people who really knew their way round the system were Joyce, Jane and Judith, and unless that got recorded, it was likely that knowledge would be lost forever. NRI were closely consulted on the SWARMS project and spent hours, months and years documenting the information, sending the maps up to Edinburgh to be digitised, deciding what case studies to use in the examples, and advising on how the tools could be used to forecast locust movements and development.
Again, I was only on the periphery of this work, my main involvement in locusts came in 1997 when the need for a more holistic approach to in-country support was needed in the biogeography realm. The RAMSES programme (SWARMS and RAMSES were rather contorted acronyms that I need not explain) looked at building up the ecology of key areas, such as the Red Sea Coastal Plain of Africa, and to help the controllers manage their own resources. Identification cards were drawn up for handy use out on patrols, maps were drawn of vegetation in the plain from satellite imagery. And I helped a team of people pull together a computerised database and mapping system that allowed all the information, rainfall, surveys, control efforts and the like, to be overlaid on single maps. The Locust Management and Analysis Tools, or LMATS as they became known, were set up in several countries over six years; Eritrea (ELMAT), Ethiopia (ETHLMAT), Yemen (YELMAT) and finally Mauritania (MAURILMAT). Once the development of the Eritrean system had been completed, the transfer to the other systems were easy for me or Judith, as I just changed some of the maps and the names of places. Mauritania was difficult as it meant we had to make all the menus and words in the interface in French. It drove Jane and I particularly mad as the French have much more complicated ways of describing things (Rainfall totals became “Volume total de Précipitations” with all the accents to boot).
For all the work on locusts I had been exposed to, it was only in Mauritania that I saw locusts for the first time, and the huge control efforts which were available. Around the offices in Ould Babah’s headquarters were a dozen huge Mercedes trucks, stained with years of driving through the desert, and riding on their backs were the sprayers, like the agricultural sprayers you see over potato crops in Britain, they had all sorts of plastic containers and hoses coming in and out all over the place. There were bits of equipment all over the place. I felt sorry that I was not going to the desert at all in this trip to see how they actually found locusts and dealt with them. For in that action underlay the biggest quandary of the whole locust business – the desert was monstrously huge and locust were tiny, whole swarms of them could in theory be completely missed by field teams just because they never climbed the particular barchans. As guardians of the locust sightings data, we had to constantly remind people that our maps did not show where locusts were; it showed only where people had seen locusts. There may have been thousands of other populations out there, they were just never spotted or reported.