It was really interesting reading the latest news from the South Georgia Rat-Eradication Project team as the Antarctica summer season come to a close. Now, the nights are very quickly drawing in, the weather is becoming increasingly stormy and snow is already falling. By now, most of the scientists who spend the southern summer on the island have shipped out and just a hardy few remain to endure the winter there.
But is looks as though the team has had a really good season and, subject to funding, can complete the project by early 2015, which will be an amazing achievement.
I first visited South Georgia three years ago, also at the end of the season and that is when I first heard about the rat eradication programme. South Georgia is the most amazing wildlife habitat, especially for birds. It is probably best known for its vast colonies of king penguins – nobody can fail to be awed by their first sight of these beautiful, inquisitive and sometimes comical birds, and stepping ashore from a zodiac and walking amongst thousands of them is a magical experience (even if you do have to keep moving away from the young fur seals who are constantly nipping at your heel!) But there are so many other birds; several species of albatross, prions, petrels and the tiny South Georgia pipit, only found on this island.
And this where the rat problem comes in – they eat the eggs in any accessible nest and don’t care how rare a particular bird might be! Rats have been on the island for hundreds of years, having arrived in the holds of whalers from Europe and America. They quickly established them selves and with a ready supply of food, multiplied into millions.
Every scientist and naturalist who visited the island became aware of the problem but there really was no solution – after all, how could you rid such a massive area of such a massive number of rodents? But a few people did have a vision and knew that there had been successful programmes on a smaller scale elsewhere – none though in such a remote and inhospitable area. That vision paid off with grants and donations of money, equipment, manpower and other resources.
In theory, the solution was simple: drop poisoned bait in controlled areas and wait for the rats to die. This is obviously not as straightforward as it sounds. The areas do have to be controlled and you wouldn’t want rats just walking back in and taking clear areas over again. This was partially solved by the island’s geography. South Georgia is not only mountainous, but has hundreds of glaciers flowing into the sea. Glaciers are not a rat-friendly environment and therefore once an area is clear, rats cannot reappear. Of course, glaciers are receding worldwide, so it was also important to undertake the project as soon as possible, since if a glacier no longer flows into the sea, rats could simply walk along the beach!
But, it is the logistics of the exercise which make it daunting. The helicopters and may of the crew are shipped in from New Zealand with as many spares as are, on the one hand considered necessary and on the other, practicable. Crews then have to contend with erratic weather conditions and always be prepared for the unexpected. They are supported informally by a New Zealand fishing boat, which sails the Southern Ocean and delivers ad hoc spare parts.
This latest report, which has reached Antarctica Bound, as a supporter of the rat eradication project, really is encouraging and areas now free of rodents are recovering progressively and the songs of pipits and petrels are being heard again. It is an incredibly expensive project and funds to continue (and complete) in 2015 are not yet fully in place, so project leaders are looking into all sources of possible support. I personally sponsored a hectare of South Georgia, which is now rat free and I am pretty sure that many of the visitors to the island who arrive on the island on expedition ships do so too. After all, we are all supporters of conservation with a keen interest in wildlife and ecology. At Antarctica Bound, we take responsible tourism very seriously.
As an aside, such programmes are also aimed at restoring viable habitats to their natural state and expelling non native species is a key component of this. The only other introduced mammal on South Georgia is the reindeer, brought there as a source of food by Norwegian whalers in the 19th century. There is a long-term objective to bring those off the island too, but that is going to be a completely different story. Watch this space!!