For the last two centuries rats introduced to the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia by sealing and whaling vessels have decimated populations of the native seabirds, which had evolved in the absence of such predators.
These ground-nesting birds are defenceless against rats, which eat the eggs and chicks from their nests, reducing the numbers of species such as petrels, prions and endemic birds such as the South Georgia pipit by an estimated 100 million.
In 2009 a small Scottish-based charity, the South Georgia Heritage Trust, decided to take on the challenge of eradicating rats and mice from South Georgia, raising the funds itself to do so. Beginning in 2011 the Trust baited the entire rodent-infested area of the island over three field seasons (Phase 1), 2013 (Phase 2) and 2015 (Phase 3), covering over 1000km2. The Trust purchased three helicopters and brought together an international team rich in experience from other island eradications, particularly those in the Antipodes. South Georgia was and still is the largest eradication project ever attempted, in remote and challenging terrain. Despite many hurdles (not least the challenge to raise £7.5 million in funding), baiting work completed in March 2015.
Since that time, no rat sign has been confirmed on South Georgia. The Phase 1 area at King Edward Point/Grytviken is populated (and therefore monitored) year round, but the rat tracks have been replaced by pipit prints and the air is full of their song. Pintail ducks proudly lead out their broods of ducklings. The 57,000 hectares baited in 2013 were surveyed in 2014, and along with the Phase 3 area will be surveyed again from November 2017 to April 2018, using a combination of detection devices and highly trained sniffer dogs. If by April 2018 the survey team does not find any evidence of survivors, the island will be declared rodent free.
However SGHT’s work is far from done. From tackling any pockets of surviving rodents, to supporting Government in ensuring best practice biosecurity measures are in place, to monitoring the recovery of the island in the absence of invasives, the Trust still needs to finish the job and secure the long-term protection and preservation of the wildlife in this sub-Antarctic sanctuary.
Find out how to support SGHT and South Georgia at www.sght.org/make-donation.