With final engineering and flight checks completed, three helicopters are now en route to the remote British Overseas Territory of South Georgia for the third and final push to reverse the ecological destruction wrought on this important seabird sanctuary by invasive rats and mice inadvertently introduced by whalers and sealers 200 years ago.
The former air ambulance helicopters, including one previously owned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, are a critical element in completing the final phase of a five-year, $12 million project, sponsored by the Scottish charity, the South Georgia Heritage Trust.
Over the brief, three month sub-Antarctic summer, starting in January 2015, an international team of 18, dubbed Team Rat, will draw on their unique expertise - from GPS and data management to meteorology and polar logistics - to eradicate rodents from the remaining one third of the island, an area of 140 sq. miles (364 square kilometres) including a 141 mile stretch (227 km) of sinuous coastline.
Skilled New Zealand pilots, employing GPS tracking systems, will aerially spread some 95 tons of bait manufactured by Bell Laboratories, an operation involving almost 450 flying hours. Portions of the island will also be hand-baited.
In two earlier phases in 2011 and 2013, Team Rat successfully baited and eradicated rats from two-thirds of the island, making the project, so far, five times larger than any other rodent eradication area in the world.
Already hopeful signs of recovery are appearing on this important breeding site for penguins, albatrosses, prions, petrels and the endemic South Georgia Pintail and South Georgia Pipit. Yet, it will take two years of monitoring with no signs of rodents before the island can be declared rat-free.
Project Director, Professor Tony Martin from the University of Dundee, Scotland, is looking forward to that day.
"Once you have experienced the magic of this extraordinary wildlife wilderness, you cannot ignore the fragility of this unique environment and the challenges it faces - it is a man-made problem, but we have a solution in our grasp," he pointed out.
Ridding Critical Bird Habitats of Rodents
With half of the world's endangered species living on islands, efforts to rid them of predators, such as rats, come with a sense of urgency. Seabirds, in particular, are suffering with their numbers rapidly declining and nearly 100 species threatened by extinction.
Bell's work with conservationists around the globe aims to halt the damage done by invasive rodents and restore the ecological balances to these islands.