South Georgia Island Habitat Restoration Project
Sandwiched between the usual increase in orders for rodent control products in fall, Bell filled a request in October for a unique bait that is travelling to a location in the Southern Hemisphere so remote most of us would be hard pressed to find it on a map. South Georgia Island, located in the Antarctic some 1,087 miles east of the southern tip of South America, will soon be the site of the largest island rat eradication project in the world to date.
Undertaken by the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT), a Scottish registered charity, the SGHT Habitat Restoration Project aims to rid the 105 mile-long Antarctic island of invasive Norway rats. For years, scientists feared that rat eradication on an island as large as South Georgia was unrealistic - the island was too large, its location too remote, the risks too high. An eradication campaign, typically undertaken in winter when birds are no longer nesting and the rats' food supply is low, was out of the question in Antarctica.
Glaciers No Longer Barrier to Rats
Like many islands around the world that have experienced loss of biodiversity due to introduced alien species, South Georgia Island has long been plagued by rats whose predecessors disembarked from the ships of early explorers, whalers and seal hunters. Preying on the eggs and chicks of nesting seabirds, the rats thrived. Until recently rats were confined to isolated regions on the island, creating subpopulations separated by either water or glaciers. But now, with climate change, scientists have found that the glaciers are rapidly retreating and are no longer effective barriers to the spread of rats. Areas once protected from rats are now overrun, leading to further decline in bird populations. The wildlife of South Georgia Island is at a crossroads.
With recent successes of several island rat eradication projects using aerial bait application, including the sub-Antarctic Campbell Island in 2001 and most recently Rat Island off the coast of Alaska, the South Georgia Heritage Trust took the bold step of initiating a multi-year project using aerial bait application, beginning in February 2011.
This project holds the promise of relief from rats on part or all of South Georgia Island and restoring it as one of the most important and spectacular seabird islands in the world.
Two Centuries of Negative Human Impact
As rich in history as it is in wildlife, South Georgia Island was discovered south of the Antarctic circumpolar front by early mariners, but it wasn't until 1775 that the first man, British Captain James Cook, set foot on its shores.
With beaches and waters rich in wildlife, the strikingly rugged and beautiful island for the next two centuries drew hoards of whalers and seal hunters who overharvested whales and other marine animals before the practice was halted with international regulations.
And, it was across the glaciers of South Georgia Island from west to east that the Antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, in 1916 trekked in his heroic journey to rescue his crew stranded 800 ocean-miles away on Elephant Island.
SGHT Habitat Restoration Project
Fast forwarding to 2011, SGHT Habitat Restoration Project scientists will rectify two centuries of negative human impact. Through a rat eradication program, scientists hope to save the native South Georgia pipit from extinction and increase the number of breeding seabirds by millions.
The SGHT Habitat Restoration Project will be directed by Professor Tony Martin, a zoologist and professor of Animal Conservation at the University of Dundee in Scotland. Martin, who is experienced in organizing large logistical operations in remote areas, has lived and worked on South Georgia Island.
Project operational plans call for aerial baiting on the island in two phases. Phase I, scheduled for late February - March 2011, is a critical testing period for the project with aerial baiting in a defined locale. Helicopter pilots will broadcast some 33.5 tons of a special pelleted brodifacoum bait, developed by Bell, on three adjacent areas on the north coast that surround the only inhabited part of the main island - Thatcher and Greene Peninsulas and a headland west of Mercer Bay.
Phase II calls for baiting the rest of the island between 2013-2015. In the intervening years, scientists will monitor, evaluate and assess the impact on both rats and non-target species, as well as gather vital feedback on the logistics and operational procedures needed for Phase II. Complete eradication of rats in the Phase I area alone would add a spectacular 50 percent to prime habitat area deemed rat-free.
First Shipment of Bait Set Sail
In preparation for Phase I, Bell manufactured and shipped 2,558 bags of bait, totaling nearly 128,000 lbs. Seven 20-foot containers, each containing 10 pallets, left Bell headquarters between October 19-21, 2010, headed for Southampton, England. There the bait will be loaded onto a British military ship for the long trek south to Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands where it will be transported with other equipment and supplies, including a helicopter, to South Georgia Island.
The logistics of an operation of this magnitude are daunting and a critical part of the operation is the bait. "It has to arrive in pristine condition, free from any contaminants or mold caused from condensation build-up as the ship crosses the tropics," noted Bell's compliance manager, Craig Riekena, who is the liaison between Bell and the project staff.
The time and distance the bait spends in transit called for special shipping procedures. Shipping containers were steam cleaned and thoroughly dried before being filled. The pellets were packed in multi-layer paper bags and then stacked on pallets which were double bagged and shrink wrapped. One-pound desiccant bags were included on pallets.
Bell has manufactured bait for other island rat eradication projects in recent years including two where bait was aerially broadcast - the first on Anacapa Island, off the coast of California, and a more recent project on Rat Island.
Well Wishes on Arduous Undertaking
As the SGHT Habitat Restoration Project unfolds in the months ahead, we will inform our readers of its progress. Scientists hope to eliminate the independent subpopulations of rats now separated by glaciers in the initial baiting area and, from that experience, to evaluate and subsequently improve techniques to get rid of rats on the whole of the main island.
We share their hopes and wish them well on this arduous undertaking.