A remarkable chapter draws to a close on the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia. The South Georgia Heritage Trust has concluded the baiting phase of its multi-year project to remove invasive rodents which have destroyed most of the native birds on one of the world’s most important seabird sanctuaries. But the story is far from over. The Habitat Restoration Project now enters a new phase, which will include intensive monitoring to identify whether the baiting phase has been successful, and sharing the experience and lessons learned in order to contribute to the future success of other eradications around the world.
As Project Director, Professor Tony Martin, Professor of Animal Conservation from the University of Dundee explains: “When I first began coming to this magical island 20 years ago, I only dreamed that it could one day be free of rats, and now because of our work, I can say that it is very likely that South Georgia is now rat free. Already the South Georgia pipit, the world’s most southerly songbird, and South Georgia pintails, both endemic species found only here, are returning in numbers we could never have imagined, along with other species which were the victims of rats. But it will take decades, even centuries, before the birdlife returns to the numbers which existed before man – and rodents - arrived.”
One of the many astonishing aspects of this project, which is the world's largest rodent eradication operation by far, is that it has been undertaken by a small Scottish charity, the South Georgia Heritage Trust, based in Dundee. This project is already inspiring others to turn back the clock on centuries of human-caused damage in their own part of the world, and increasing global capacity to fight back against invasive alien species.
The total cost of the Habitat Restoration Project, including the monitoring work still to come, is expected to be £7.5 million. It has been funded entirely by voluntary donations raised by SGHT and its US counterpart, Friends of South Georgia Island (FOSGI). Donors include UK, US and Norwegian Trusts and Foundations; a wide range of generous individual supporters, including thousands of tourists visiting South Georgia on cruise-ships; the UK Government; and support in kind from US and UK corporations.
SGHT is also grateful for the assistance received from the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and the British Antarctic Survey, without whose support it would not have been feasible for the Trust to carry out this vital conservation work.
As Alison Neil, the CEO of the South Georgia Heritage Trust explains: “The Habitat Restoration Project is far from over, especially in terms of the ongoing fundraising. While we cannot yet be certain that South Georgia is rat-free, although the signs are really positive, what we can say with confidence is that the baiting work has been completed successfully, safely, on time and within budget!”
In January an 18-strong international team known as, “Team Rat”, led by Professor Tony Martin, set off for South Georgia to undertake the third and final baiting phase of what is currently the largest rat eradication project anywhere in the world. Three months later the last pellet of bait was laid, and this British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic is hopefully free of rodents for the first time in over two centuries.
Planning for the ambitious Habitat Restoration Project began in 2007, and the fieldwork was undertaken in three phases in 2011, 2013 and 2015 by teams comprised of the world’s leading experts in eradication work, in often hostile conditions imposed by South Georgia’s notoriously extreme and unpredictable weather.
The enormous scale of the project is revealed by the operational statistics:
• A total of 1,050 square km successfully baited
• 290 tonnes of rodenticide spread by three former Air Ambulance helicopters
• 100% of the island’s rat-infested areas now baited, making it eight times larger than any other rodent eradication area
• 1,000 flying hours, equivalent to flying around the world 3 times
During the third and final phase of fieldwork alone, 95 tons of bait were laid by the Trust’s helicopters, using GPS tracking systems to keep an accurate record of bait coverage, as well as some hand-baiting, over an area of 364 square kilometres. The three month field operation involved almost 350 flying hours, requiring 260 bait pods to be laid, and 350 drums of fuel to keep the helicopters in the skies above South Georgia.
Howard Pearce, Chairman of SGHT’s international Board of Trustees, concludes, “While a further two year monitoring period is necessary before we can be fully confident of complete success, it is certainly possible – indeed highly probable - that South Georgia is now rodent-free. There have already been significant sightings of native species in areas where they have not been seen in living memory. The Trust is quietly confident that success is in sight. But there is more work to be done and funds to be raised, before we can truly claim final victory over the rodent invaders