Date-palm (phoenix dactylefera) is one of the oldest fruit trees in the world and is mentioned in the Bible and the Qur’an. Dates as a fresh fruit rank No 5 in the list of tropical/sub-tropical fruits after citrus, mangoes, banana, and pine-apples.
As a dried fruit, dates easily top the list over rasins, fig, etc. The exact gene centre of the tree has been lost in the history, but the evidence of its cultivation goes as far back as 7000 BC.
However, regions bordering on Shatul Arab in Iraq and Persian Gulf are generally considered to be the original home of date-palm. Date growing in Mekran also dates back to pre-historic times. In other parts of Pakistan, dates are supposed to have been introduced by Greeks when Alexander invaded India and dates formed part of the rations of his troops. The date seeds cast by the Alexandrian army during their movement up and down the Indus led to the production of seedling dates which were the pro-genitors of most of the date-palms met with in Pakistan.
Date-palm growing countries are many but the list of major countries include the names of Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Algeria, UAE, Sudan and Libya which produce almost 90 per cent of the world production. In Pakistan, main dates growing areas are Khairpur, Punjgoor, Dera Ghazi Khan, Bahawalpur, Multan, Nawabshah, Kotri, Bannu and Rohri.
However, varieties grown mainly in Khairpur and Punjgoor are the only internationally acclaimed ones. ‘Assel’ of Khairpur is the queen of all varieties grown in Pakistan. As per conservative estimate, the total acreage under date-palm in district Khairpur is about 100,000 acres. Total production of dates in Pakistan reportedly stands at 293,000 tons of which the share of Sindh is 37 per cent, followed by Balochistan 32 per cent and the rest go to NWFP and Punjab.
With the passage of time Pakistan has become the third largest date-exporting country in the world after Iran and the UAE. As per the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB), the export of dates during 2000-01 surpassed 75,000 tons. In spite of the fact that being situated in the agro-ecological regions where dates are being produced on large scale, very small efforts have been made in Pakistan to harness the potential of this crop. The EPB arranges date shows in different parts of the country from time to time but it has failed to persuade the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC) and the provincial agriculture departments for the protection of date-palm from the ravages of insect pests, particularly against the deadly red date palm weevil (rhynchophorus ferrugineus) responsible for killing thousand of fruit-bearing trees in district Khairpur alone every year.
Besides Pakistan, weevil has threatened all the 50 million of Arabia’s treasured date-palms. According to Dr Hanounik—the regional co-ordinator of the biological control of red palm weevils in GCC countries, this five centimetre-long insect,the red palm weevil, crossed into Arabia in ornamental plants from Pakistan in 1985. The weevils have now infested over 10,000 farms across Arabia. Following the pressing demand, a date palm research station has been set up at Kot Diji in district Khairpur at a cost of Rs2.5 million by the government of Sindh but even after five years no research work has been started. The importance of control of this menace could be gauged from the fact that only one weevil can destroy a date palm tree.
Nearly 85 per cent of all local and foreign promising varieties have been found infested by it. Experiments undertaken at the Agricultural Research Institute, Dera Ismail Khan, in 1980s indicated that the infestation percentage of the different varieties of date palms i.e. Dhakki, Sharki, Khudravi, Azadi, Basari, Zaidi, Gilistan, and Sharman was 37, 20, 23, 66, 80, 20, 84, and 32 per cent respectively.
Biological studies revealed that red palm weevil is diurnal in habit. They produce two generations annually. Females lay eggs singly on the places of detachment of suckers or other wounds. During 1983 outbreak of this pest in district Khairpur Pakistan Agricultural Research Council’s (PARC) experts had recommended chopping up the affected portion of fallen trees followed by spraying or dusting with strong insecticides such as BHC or dieldrin (being long persistent and highly toxic both the insecticides are now banned in the country).
Another recommendations were spraying of base of dates tree, where from suckers are removed for propagation, with systemic pesticides like dimethoate. Since the fumigation practice adopted by palm growers was not an effective control method, they were recommended to examine the trees after about one week and refumigating it with aluminium phosphide tablets, if necessary. What a pity?. In spite of the fact that BHC and dieldrin recommended to kill the date palm weevil’s larvae have been banned and fumigation with phostoxin tablet is not an effective tools against weevils resulting continued slow death of thousand of trees annually, both PARC at federal level and Horticulture Research Institute, Government of Sindh, at provincial level looks quite complacent with the existing situation.
A survey of date palm groves in Sistan-Balochistan province of Iran by this writer during April last year (2002) indicated that to protect about 25,500 hectares of date-palms area in Sistan, a new approach for red date-palm weevil control has been initiated. This approach is use of pheromone (feregenol) for monitoring and masstrapping of red date-palm weevil. Reportedly a multinational company, “Tomagro International B.V.” has launched date-palm weevil control with a pheromone “Ferrugitom 200” in UAE, Oman, Jordan, and Iran and likely to be extended to Egypt, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. According to it, one Ferrugitom 200 lure is hung inside a bucket trap from the lid. The trap usually contains in the base a mixture of rotting plant material and an insecticide. This technique has been proven highly effective yet simple to apply according to the pheromone producing company.
Suggestion: In order to protect date palm orchards from ravages of deadly red date palm weevil, especially in Sindh, tomagro International B.V. may be approached by the PARC to under-take trial of Ferrugitom 200 in Pakistan as well, as undertaken in UAE, Oman, Iran, etc.