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Modern Ark
<p>AAP/Tourism NSW</p>

AAP/Tourism NSW

Lord Howe Island is home to a long list of endangered native species, as well as tens of thousands of rats and mice.

100,000 Rats, 42 Tonnes of Poison — And One Slightly Nervous World Heritage Island

Here’s the plan: Stop rats from killing rare species, with a poison-packing flying squadron carpet-bombing virgin rainforest. It’s worked before. But is this really the way we save the planet?


Dr Ray Nias is a gently spoken zoologist who plots massacres from his small office on the edge of bushland in Sydney’s suburban northwest.

His employers — a northern California-based group of activist scientists, Island Conservation — favour a stealth poison that causes animals, mostly rats, to begin seeping blood from their insides. Because death may take up to a week, rats that slink off to die have never learned to connect the little emerald-green cereal pellets to their end. The laced bait is poured from helicopters using satellite guidance to fly a patchwork grid so precise that at least one lethal bait will fall within every two square metres of ground below.

Sometimes the rat killers are aided by a country’s armed forces. Governments often chip in millions. For a mass extermination to be successful, every last rat must take the poison. After the rats are gone, island saviours can set about reversing the reign of the rats by scouring the planet for the nearest relatives of the creatures the rats forced to disappear. And bringing them home.

On Australia’s Lord Howe Island, far out in the Tasman Sea, there are an estimated 100,000 black rats, all descended from a few that scrambled ashore from a broken ship’s organ in the winter of 1918, when the island trader SS Makambo ran aground and stayed stuck on a Lord Howe beach for nine days. The shipwrecked rats gorged on the island’s birds, lizards and insects, and multiplied, quickly bringing about a wave of extinctions; Lord Howe’s Tinted Thrush, its native warblers, fantails, white-eyes and starlings disappeared. And its native owls. All fell to the swarming rats.

So, too, did one of the world’s largest and strangest insects — the Lord Howe land lobster, a black stick insect as long as man’s outstretched hand, which doesn’t need males to reproduce. These were believed to have been lost forever until, in 2001, a tiny group of females was found clinging to the soaring, rat-free volcanic rock, Ball’s Pyramid, which thrusts out from the sea like a blade, 23 kilometres off the island’s coast.

Lord Howe’s spectacular red-crowned parakeets had been wiped out before the rats arrived — hunted down by farmer settlers who cursed their raids on early crops. But the rats would have got the parrots anyway. Long-ranging seabirds such as the Kermadec Petrels fled, flying on to outposts too far off for the rats to swim to. They never returned.

Now the rats’ time on the island is just about up. Nias, who is a director of the not-for-profit Island Conservation, is among those coming for them. Over the past 18 years, Island Conservation’s small band of scientists has choreographed mass killings. They have been spurred by the development of faster-acting, stronger poisons; global satellite-positioning technology that enables helicopter pilots to stay within one metre of their computer-plotted flight paths when dropping baits; and the realisation that time is fast running out to save endangered species forced into their last refuges — the world’s most remote islands.

<p>RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images</p>

RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images

A helicopter releases a special stealth rat poison over Pinzon Island. Because death may take up to a week, rats that slink off to die have never learned to connect the little emerald-green cereal pellets to their end.

Island Conservation staff, working out of buildings at Santa Cruz on the coast south of San Francisco, have also had to battle seething animal-rights activists, doubting, combative fellow scientists and embittered island residents in their missions to rid islands of the destructors brought by man. These include donkeys, sheep, cats, dogs, foxes and mice.

The pioneers of island mass eradications — the New Zealand Department of Conservation — honed their techniques in distant, empty territories, away from the public gaze. They went to islands off Alaska’s howling Aleutian Peninsula, the remotest parts of the Pacific Ocean, forgotten corners of the Caribbean and lonely, wind-tossed islands in southern New Zealand. They have shot, trapped and poisoned pigs, goats, arctic foxes and rats — the greatest predators of all — by the million.

The group chose to work on islands because islands have a disproportionately large number of the planet’s disappearing species. They make up less than 5 per cent of the world’s land area but harbour 20 per cent of all the planet’s bird, reptile and plant species. And just about all of the world’s known extinctions have occurred on islands, as they are the last refuge for many species.

It was in the year 2001, on an empty, chilly sub-Antarctic outpost, 700 kilometres south of New Zealand, that the tide really turned for those committed to large-scale, mass extermination of island invaders — Campbell Island became the site of the largest rat extermination ever attempted. Back in the 19th century, this was an island of roughneck sealers and whalers, and when they left, feral animals stayed; these included wild cattle, cats, and the greatest menace, the Norway rat. Although the cats and cattle were later removed, many doubted that the rats could ever be eradicated.

<p>Ella Rubeli/The Global Mail</p>

Ella Rubeli/The Global Mail

Dr Ray Nias, zoologist and a director of Island Conservation.

Campbell lies within the latitude of the Furious Fifties — a region of screaming winds and winter snowstorms. It is also, at 11,300 hectares, a big island. It has wild, sheer cliffs and tumbling, treacherous escarpments. Hand baiting such a large, craggy island was highly unlikely to reach every rat, and the difficulties of using helicopters to drop poisoned baits seemed insurmountable. The island was so far south, the cost of shipping helicopters, fuel and supplies would be enormous. And there was only a narrow window to drop the baits; it would have to be in the mid-winter period when rat numbers were lowest and they were unlikely to be breeding. Mid winter was also when the bird species, such as skuas, that might be accidentally poisoned by the baits, were off the island. The island’s big albatrosses, which posed an airborne threat to the helicopters, and the rock hopper penguins which would be terrified by the noise, would also be elsewhere at that time of year.

The New Zealanders needed to get four helicopters to the island — to ensure that they could thoroughly coat the landscape in poison within a 12-week time frame that was likely to be further narrowed by Campbell Island’s wild deep-south weather patterns. They fitted the choppers with long-range fuel tanks, dumped more fuel on islands along the route to Campbell and island-hopped the small choppers all the way down the Southern Ocean to the sub-Antarctic. They used a smaller, cheaper boat than would have been required to ship the helicopters, to carry the poison south, and converted a crumbling weather station on the island into living quarters for the human combatants.

They then killed every last Norway rat.

<p>AAP Image/Tasmanian Department of Tourism, Arts and the Environment; Parks and Wildlife Service</p>

AAP Image/Tasmanian Department of Tourism, Arts and the Environment; Parks and Wildlife Service

The rats’ time on the island is just about up. After the rats are gone, island saviours can set about reversing the damage by scouring the planet for the nearest relatives of the creatures the rats forced to disappear.

Very quickly afterwards, sea birds which had not bred on Campbell Island for decades returned. They included snipes and storm petrels. Amazingly, the world’s rarest duck species, the Campbell Island Teal — which was driven from the island by the rats 200 years ago and thought to have been extinct until a tiny number were found clinging on at a nearby islet — is back and thriving.

So remarkable was the saving of Campbell Island that it became a template for island rescues elsewhere.

Australia quickly followed with an attempt to wipe out all the rabbits and rats on its own sub-Antarctic territory, Macquarie Island, two years ago, using the same aerial baiting technique. (The jury is still out on its success.)

The Americans caught on, too, finally ending a 200-year rat occupation of the aptly named Rat Island in Alaska’s Aleutian chain. They too used the Kiwi-developed aerial technology.

The British, similarly inspired, are attempting the largest rat eradication ever — on the 800-square-kilometre South Georgia Island in the far southern Atlantic. Thirty-three times Campbell Island’s size, and just as empty of men, South Georgia is glacial and forbidding. It was once the world’s most teeming seabird breeding ground; albatross, penguins and gulls nested here in vast numbers, before the rats came with the seafarers in the late 18th century.

Three former air ambulance helicopters began dropping 100 million poisonous pallets on sub-Antarctic South Georgia Island on March 8 — aiming to eradicate the brown rats which arrived in the 18th century aboard ships. South Georgia’s glacial terrain means that the huge populations of the rats live in separate colonies on the island. Rats cannot cross glaciers, meaning that the rats live in isolated pockets that can, for now, be tackled separately.

But time is running out. The glaciers are retreating and scientists are racing against the clock to wipe out the rats before the retreat of the glaciers allows the rat colonies to form into a single, vast population.

The latest poison drop is intended to clear half the remaining rat infested territory on the island. The rat eradicators will return next summer to deal with those remaining.

Campbell Island confirmed the reputation of New Zealand’s small Department of Conservation as the giant of island rescues around the world. New Zealand has been the world’s ground zero for extinctions caused by rats. The last large habitable land mass to be discovered by man, New Zealand had no earthbound predators, such as wild dogs or cats, or snakes. As a result, many of its birds had evolved to be ground dwellers, and when the rats came with the Maori people those flightless birds were easily picked off. At least 51 New Zealand bird species are gone forever. A small band of New Zealand conservationists began to fight back on the small islands of the country’s wild deep south — not just against the rats but also against their public service masters who scoffed at the idea that whole islands could be purged of tens of thousands of rats.

Unsurprisingly, the Kiwis will also be involved in what is considered the world’s most complex island rescue — of Australia’s Lord Howe Island, which lies in the Tasman Sea between the two nations.

It is not the number of rats on Lord Howe, the island’s location, or its size (less than a quarter the area of Campbell Island) that make World Heritage-listed Lord Howe a challenge for experts in pest eradication. Rather, it is the island’s lawful occupants — its people and its endangered indigenous species — that make this a particularly tricky mission.

Unlike previous eradication sites, this is a well-off, inhabited island that has its own economic pulse; it has a permanent population of about 350 people, who are deeply attached to their island lives and spread across about 150 households. The island has 1,000 buildings. Tourists arriving on daily flights from the Australian mainland are crucial to Lord Howe’s economy — they number about 16,000 a year and lavish money on its hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and tours. To feed this transient population, the islanders run herds of beef cattle and dairy cows, and hundreds of chickens.

Islands make up less than 5 per cent of the world’s land area but harbour 20 per cent of all the planet’s bird, reptile and plant species.

Lord Howe’s beauty is fortified by three soaring volcanic mountains. It has vast forests. Nearly half its plants grow nowhere else in the world, and there is a long list of native creatures that have entered the endangered- and vulnerable-species ledgers; these include ungainly native woodhens, lumbering land snails, native geckos, skinks and spiders, and an array of seabirds including petrels, shearwaters and terns.

And there are also 100,000 rats and tens of thousands more mice which are voracious eaters of Lord Howe’s plants and bird eggs. The mice have been known to swarm by the hundreds and attack sea bird chicks. The rodents have divided the islanders.

No-one has so far attempted to use aerial baiting to eradicate rats and mice on such a developed island that also sustains a large human population and a vital tourism industry. But in the winter of 2015, helicopters are due begin the first of two low-level, precisely guided sweeps across Lord Howe Island, dropping about 42 tonnes of green cereal pellets laced with lethal brodifacoum, the anti-coagulant that causes internal bleeding and eventual death.

Some — such as the island’s best-known naturalist, Ian Hutton, who has discovered tiny seabird chicks mortally wounded by rats, who has found the smashed birds’ eggs, and who sees daily evidence of the rats’ ravaging of the island’s plants — desperately want the helicopters to come and spread the poison.

“Some people say, ‘Oh well, the rats have happened and that’s too bad. But those rats, they have to eat something every night so they predate on birds’ eggs, lizards, snails, crickets, plants. It’s all going on every night,” says Hutton.

<p>Ian Hutton</p>

Ian Hutton

The masked booby is the largest of the seabirds to breed on the island. The wounds seen here are from a vicious rat attack.

Others demur. Rob Rathgeber, a semi-retired business consultant, who spreads his time between Sydney and the island, says that while he accepts that some rats must be killed, in order to control their numbers, there is no need for their total eradication on Lord Howe: “There is a very, very valid point that the rat is now in sync with the environment over there. And if you remove it, it causes all sorts of problems.”

He also fears the unknown possible long-term effects on humans of brodifacoum — the anti-coagulant in the rat baits that causes death by bleeding. Conservation scientists counter that the risks to humans are minimal and an antidote is readily available.

It was depressingly clear only three years after the SS Makambo foundered in 1918 that the rats that had fled the ship would devastate the island’s plants and creatures. A local naturalist, A R McCulloch, wrote: “One can scarcely imagine a greater calamity in the bird world than this tragedy which has overtaken the avifauna of Lord Howe Island.

The islanders tried to turn back the rat tide, offering a sixpenny bounty per rat’s tail, and organised large rat-hunting parties using dogs, clubs and guns. Their desperation eventually led to a chain of ecological train wrecks on Lord Howe. In the 1920s, for example, Masked Owls — which are ferocious rat hunters and killers — were brought up from Tasmania and quickly thrived. But they also became fearsome predators of the endangered native birds that the islanders have been striving to save from extinction — the woodhens and the Providence Petrels. Now the owls themselves have been declared pests; they’re being culled and will eventually also be exterminated.

These days, the islanders’ use of commercially available poisons to control mice in their homes and the rats around their properties has become so prevalent that it also results in the death of native wildlife — including the hard-done-by woodhens, which have only recently been nurtured back from the brink of extinction. Some of the birds are dying from secondary poisoning; from eating the dead and dying poisoned rodents or the bait.

Lord Howe, as an inhabited island which owes its living to tourism, is more sensitive to the collateral-deaths issue.

In fact, the quantity of poisoned bait thrown at rats and mice every year in the populated areas of Lord Howe almost equals the amount per hectare that will be used in the eradication planned in 2015. There is also a race against another ecological clock: brodifacoum is already among the poisons routinely used by islanders and there is concern that the island’s rodents could become immune to it before the mass eradication — the $9 million cost will be funded by the Australian federal and New South Wales governments — can be started.

The deaths of native birds through secondary poisoning throws up one of the most vexing issues faced by those planning the Lord Howe rat eradication. They already know from trials on the island with dummy baits that some of the island’s still fragile native species — the woodhens in particular — will eat the poisoned baits after the helicopter drop. They will undoubtedly die. And some other native birds — such as the Pied Currawongs — will also die from feeding on the masses of dead rats, as the poison that killed the rats accumulates in the birds’ livers.

The problem is that nobody knows how many birds might be accidentally killed, but previous exterminations offer some ominous indicators. When New Zealand aerial-bated Kapiti, a 2,000-hectare island bird sanctuary north of Wellington, there were significant declines in the call rates of wekas — a bird closely related to Lord Howe’s woodhens. Some research says the population was decimated. And up to 20 per cent of the island’s native parrots — the kaka — may have died. Brodifacoum was used on Kapiti.

The worst backfire as a result of baiting occurred in Alaska. In the thaw of 2009, scientists made their way across the Bering Sea to check the results of their work on Rat Island in the Aleutians. During the previous winter it had been aerial-bombed with brodifacoum baits by a team which included the ace New Zealand helicopter pilots, mountain flyers used to the Alaskan weather; winds that tossed choppers as if they were darts. Organisers of this baiting were confident that in breaching Rat Island’s remoteness and Arctic conditions, they’d opened up a new frontier for island eradications.

The return party found that they had indeed killed all the rats. But they were chilled to discover Rat Island’s beaches littered not only with the corpses of gulls, but also with the great carcasses of bald eagles — America’s national symbol.

When it was later confirmed that every dead bird sampled had tested positive for brodifacoum poisoning, the scientists knew something had gone terribly awry. There had been only a few eagles on the island when the baits were dropped, but it seemed the big birds had flocked from further afield. Word must have got out among the eagles of the Aleutian Islands that there was a mass of easy prey, dead rats, on Rat Island, and the magnificent birds had flown in from surrounding islands only to meet their deaths.

<p>Peter Hodum</p>

Peter Hodum

The long-ranging Kermandec Kestrel fled the rats on Lord Howe. Never to return.

Australia’s sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island harbours a different kind of cautionary tale, of ecological blowback on people’s attempts to radically interfere with a chain of predation. In the late 1990s wildlife officers stormed the island’s huge feral cat population. As expected, seabird numbers subsequently began to swell, but then came nature’s backlash — without the cats, the island’s rabbit population boomed. So, too, did those of the rats and mice. In 2006 hillsides left scoured and unstable by hordes of burrowing rabbits collapsed in heavy rains, trapping the nesting penguins below. Then, in 2010, when the first batch of brodifacoum baits were unleashed upon the rats and mice, foul weather forced the next drops to be abandoned. Unhappily, however, 400 seabirds were found poisoned. In 2011 the eradicators tried again. Macquarie Island has since exploded with life: its seabird population is again booming and vegetation is re-coating the bald hills. The island may be declared rat-free this year.

The potential for collateral casualties on Lord Howe weighs heavily on those planning the island’s mass rat eradication. The precious native woodhens — once down to no more than the 30 last of the species in the world — are vulnerable. So are the big, black, melodious-voiced Pied Currawongs — a species also native to Lord Howe. Non-native species such as ducks and the Masked Owls will also suffer.

The killing of non-target creatures is a cost of mass poisoning. The consensus among conservation scientists is that their quest to eradicate marauding introduced species is akin to war; and that some innocents will die so that many more can live. Or as Art Sowls, one of architects of the Rat Island eradication remarked to William Stolzenburg, author of the book Rat Island, after his team discovered the dead eagles: “The non-target issue is frustrating, but if you have cancer, you have to decide you are going to have chemo. Truth is, if they get all the rats, all the non-targets will be better off in the long run.”

“The argument that invasive species are just part of the new world ... that just means giving up, in my view. You might as well let people shoot tigers to put them in Chinese pharmacies.”

And for Nias, not to kill the invasive animals would be to surrender ever more of the diminishing natural world: “Occasionally biologists do come with the argument that invasive species are just part of the new world, that we should just learn to live with them. Well, that just means giving up, in my view. You might as well live with pollution in rivers as part of the new world, you might as well live with climate change, you might as well let people shoot tigers to put them in Chinese pharmacies. That’s part of the new world — let it happen. We don’t take that view. We say eradication is feasible, it’s effective, produces results, so we do it.”

Lord Howe, as an inhabited island which owes its living to tourism, is more sensitive to the collateral-deaths issue. This eradication, conducted in the presence of a vocal, alert human population, will be closely watched. It will not have the cover of remoteness and inaccessibility. A disaster on Lord Howe would be felt by conservationists the world over.

So the scientists have organised a biblically inspired insurance policy — a Noah’s Ark. Before the helicopters swoop, hundreds of woodhens and Pied Currawongs will be captured and locked in cages specially built to be impenetrable to mice. Some of these will be further removed, taken to the Australian mainland for safekeeping in Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. So if, by some awful turn of events, the poisoning decimates the native birds on Lord Howe, there will be enough animals in reserve, to ensure the survival of the species. Only small numbers of the birds will initially be released back into the wild, and they will be fitted with radio transmitters to allow scientists to monitor their survival rates — before the rest of the population is allowed to join them.

Not so fortunate will be the island’s 300 chickens and its beef cattle. They’ll be slaughtered before baiting starts. The dairy herd will be locked away in a specially built barn. The island’s 40-odd pet dogs will need to be tied up or kept indoors. Lord Howe Island has no cats. Around Lord Howe’s built-up areas, the poison baits will be distributed by hand and put into bait stations.

The evolving technology used in island pest eradication — more lethally efficient poison and the use of satellite technology to ensure that no corner of targeted land will be missed by the choppers — means the success rate of island strikes is on the upswing. Island Conservation’s website reports that in the 18 years since the organisation was formed, 51 of the world’s islands have been cleared of invaders. This adds up to an area slightly smaller than the Isle of Man.

But the hope is that after the rats are gone, the lost bird populations of the past will return to Lord Howe Island. Perhaps the ocean wanderer, the large Kermadec Petrel, will take a chance and return to this shore where it hasn’t bred for decades. It’s even hoped that the relatives of land birds such as the red-crowned Parakeet, long lost from Lord Howe, will come to enjoy the sanctuary of a rat-free island.

And if these close relatives don’t come freely, people like Ray Nias are prepared to intervene and move them in. He knows that the extinct Lord Howe parakeet’s relations survive on Australia’s Norfolk Island and in New Zealand.

Says Nias: “The exciting thing for me about island conservation is that up to a point it’s about stopping damage. But it also gives you the potential to start restoring what was before.”

42 comments on this story
by Denise Murphy

With your beautiful writing, following the npr links, and watching the video of the hatchling, that was the best hour's reading for pleasure I've enjoyed in a very long time, thank you so much.

March 26, 2013 @ 6:38am
by R we there yet

idiots !
illogical

March 26, 2013 @ 7:15am
by Glenda Ellis

There is something scary in this proposed activity - could it be another of mankind's blunders about to occur? I worry when we put quite so much trust in 'the experts'. Ian Hutton has lived on Lord Howe for many years, the experts have not.
Rats are certainly a problem, and a big one, but I would not be supporting such an ecological experiment in my backyard!

March 26, 2013 @ 9:48am
by Bern Lagan

Thank you Denise! I am glad you enjoyed it. Best
Bern

March 26, 2013 @ 10:27am
by Jeremy Smith

Great story once again. Well done.

March 26, 2013 @ 11:22am
by Rob

Excellent, in depth and thought provoking article, thanks Bern.
The devastation done to such ecosystems by these rodents is abhorrent and I imagine that those in charge of this operation will be very careful not to add to the already disturbing loss of endemic species on Lord Howe. I have a lot of faith in scientists and actually know some very good kiwi ones.
I can only imagine the pleasure of living without rats and mice, however I do wonder if they will be able to keep them out once they have eradicated them.

March 26, 2013 @ 8:29pm
by bas van schooten

@glenda introducinh all these rats was the experiment gone wrong......

This is an experiment already done plenty of times. Also on two islands of puerto rico and the wildlife shows recovery now the rats are gone.

I cant as a fanatc naturalist be filed by nothing but hope that at least islands endemics still have hope this century

March 27, 2013 @ 1:09am
by Dan Brumbaugh

I'm familiar with some successful rat eradications on islands, such as a recent one on Palmyra Atoll in the Central Pacific, but this article was really good in both providing a wider geographical context and in highlighting particular challenges and opportunities for species recovery and ecosystem restoration on Lord Howe Island, Macquarie Island, etc. I'm hopeful that island species on the brink of extinction can be brought back through such well planned and heroic conservation efforts.

March 27, 2013 @ 3:20am
by Andrew Veale

I conducted a bird survey on Rangitoto/Motutapu less than a year after the mammalian eradication was undertaken there - in the same manner as this one. In that time, three species of indigenous birds which had not been seen on the island in over one hundred years had recolonised. This means that they had been 'recolonising' constantly over that time, but been killed before anyone saw them. People that speculate that rats have reached a new equillibrium with the environment do not understand what that environment will look like with them gone. The one off cost of eradication is far lower than that of ongoing control, and the total number of rats that die lower as well. Island eradications minimise cost, minimise the total death toll and provide habitat that otherwise will not safe for indigenous animals. Good on them!

March 27, 2013 @ 7:14am
by Peter Best

Surely rats aren't the greatest predators. We are.

March 27, 2013 @ 7:51am
by David Price

Glenda, yes, it's scary and drastic, but so absolutely necessary if we're to even attempt to put right the things we've messed up. No one likes chemical poisons, least of all us Kiwis (who probably use more chemical inputs on their systems than most countries do), but the alternative without them is unthinkable. We know from the past few decades that a BAU strategy isn't going to work. I personally look forward to the day when technology allows us to redeem nature and the land from our destructive history without using harmful chemicals, but that's a long way off. In the meantime, we MUST use them, though very carefully, before it's too late for other species which are on their way out.
I daresay, if you had rats and other invasive species devastating "nature" in your backyard, without other means, you would also become a reluctant but firm advocate of these strategies.

March 27, 2013 @ 10:32am
by Luke

A good summary of eradication work, but it is disappointing to read the myth that the eradication of feral cats on Macquarie Island led to an explosion in rabbit numbers. This is not the case as detailed in this article: Dowding, J.E.; Murphy, E.C.; Springer, K.; Peacock, A.J.; Krebs, C.J. 2009. Cats, rabbits, Myxoma virus, and vegetation on Macquarie Island: a comment on Bergstrom et al. (2009). Journal of Applied Ecology 46: 1129-1132 Having seen the amazing ecological change on a number of the islands mentioned, I am excited about the positive environmental benefits for Lord Howe!

March 27, 2013 @ 11:14am
by Jack Craw

Well put-together story this. To Glenda Ellis - please read some of the other eradication stories and reports, including toxin residue monitoring. These are not experiments, they are simply pest control operations on a larger scale. Please be reassured that past "mankind's blunders" are the reason for these restorative programmes, and environmental hazards and impacts have been considered exhaustively. The option - to do nothing - would be criminal neglect given what we collectively know and what we can afford to undertake on behalf of the planet's shrinking biodiversity.

March 27, 2013 @ 11:40am
by Serra

An interesting article, thank you.
Having been involved with pest eradication on NZ islands, I would like to say that those involved care passionately and deeply about what they are doing, and work extremely thoroughly to identify and minimise risk to non target species. I have seen a highly experienced helicopter pilot cry over the death of a single bird during a species translocation.
I have been following the preliminary work on the Lord Howe, and wish I was more directly involved. I hope it goes well, and look foward to visiting another rodent free island post eradication :)

March 27, 2013 @ 11:58am
by Chris Lee

This article brought me to tears. Thank you for not giving up. Than you for fighting to give our children the opportunity to experience joy and fascination of the myriad diversity and wonderment that is life on earth.

March 28, 2013 @ 12:49am
by Jessi

Perhaps what you were going for in the image above was Kermadec petrel?

March 28, 2013 @ 6:24am
by Mehmud_Ahmed

Great story and that is why I like Global. Very well research and presented.

March 29, 2013 @ 7:43am
by Andrew Brennan

Really enlightening story. Amazed at what goes into these programmes to protect these species but so worth the effort.

March 29, 2013 @ 8:22am
by Mr Alaska

Do it...and thanks ahead of time for doing it. And for not standing by.

March 29, 2013 @ 8:55am
by Gill

I love reading Global Mail articles they present all sides of the issue and leave you with your own choices to make on the issue. Thank you for real reporting, it is worth the wait to receive information that allows me to engage in my own ideas, beliefs and emotions with the facts.

March 29, 2013 @ 11:12am
by Chris Wallace

There's a really good Australian novel which turns on this issue: Barry Maitland's "Bright Air". Well worth reading - http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3344947-bright-air

March 29, 2013 @ 11:12am
by mjr

Rats, Kiwis. What's the difference?

March 29, 2013 @ 12:34pm
by Julie

I've worked on controlling feral plants on LHI with their strategy of integrated management: strike when the species is most vulnerable, use a combination of methods to minimise the development of resistance, and strive to change the ecology to favour native species again. This can apply equally well to pest animals such as rats, but without the option of using a biological control (such as a rat-specific disease). It was explained to me that such a disease would not have time to work as rats have such a short life and reproduce at a young age. The knowledge and commitment to eliminate rats on LHI with the judicious use of chemicals exists - I think we owe it to LHI to support this project any way we can.

March 29, 2013 @ 6:27pm
by Green Giant

Predictably, the grey old men who thunder against the environment at Quadrant deny the science to argue for feral cats and rabbits. I just read this and regret more than ever that Julia's bid to impose responsibility controls on the media had to be abandoned. Read it and be disgusted:

http://www.quadrant.org.au/blogs/doomed-planet/2012/09/wrecking-macquarie-island-to-save-it

April 1, 2013 @ 10:53am
by lhilocal

Interesting that nothing has been said about the effects brodifacoum will have on the marine environment on Lord Howe Island... a heavy rain shower could wash many of these cereal pellets into the ocean, and as much of the ocean surrounding the island is a Marine Park the effects could be lethal on many of the species endemic to the island, such as the Double Header Wrasse if consumed. This is an insane and drastic approach to the rat eradication for such a small and delicate island and myself and many other islanders strongly fight against it.

April 1, 2013 @ 6:23pm
by Jack Shick

A very good article. I reside on LHI and there is a huge problem with rats not only with the wildlife they also eat the food we try to grow. The only correction I would like the author to make is that the cows and chickens on LHI are not used for food production any more as it is against health regulations......... that's another story.

April 2, 2013 @ 7:12am
by Rob

For the long term health of Lord Howe Island this eradication is essential. Do all the risk management of other species and then get on with it.

April 2, 2013 @ 8:41am
by Trish

I have visited LHI on many occasions on weeding trips and seen the damage caused by the rats which is only the tip of the iceberg. I support this project yet acknowledge it will be a challenging time for the islanders and all involved. LHI will be an even greater destination after the rats are gone.

April 2, 2013 @ 10:29am
by LHIRESIDENT

Yes it's a shame that the island has so many rats. Yes it would be nice to get rid of them permanently BUT at what cost? I am a resident of lord Howe island and am al for getting rid of the rats but not by mass aerial baiting. I have 3 children and like most people on the island grow our own fruit and vegetables, have cows for milk and use them also for meat, as well as eat fresh fish straight from the ocean . What research has been done on the effects on women and children. We are worried about having babies and them suffering from deformities due to the poison being on our soil, in the ocean, etc etc.as mentioned in a previous statement, what about the double headers, Kingfish with the bait falling into our pristine marine park sanctuaries and killing many other species and endemic fish.?what about the bore water we all shower in.? How do I stop my kids from drinking it while in the shower? I don't think there is enough information out there for the families on Lord Howe. Maybe some more information on what the effects on human life during and post would be helpful.

April 2, 2013 @ 1:28pm
by Jane Gye

One of the scientists involved in rat eradication on Campbell Island gave a talk to visitors on LHI a couple of years ago. Her description of the renewal of wildlife once the rat menace had gone was truly exciting.
LHI will be an even better destination for those seeking the best places on the planet to enjoy the wonders of nature. It's World Heritage status will be enhanced.

April 2, 2013 @ 3:03pm
by Mindy Byrne

Sounds like an epic project, and until it's done, so hard to say if it is the right thing to do.
LHI IS an exceptional place, and given the overall success of prior projects, it seems that following through here is most worthwhile.
Hoping not too much backfire result occurs.

April 2, 2013 @ 3:35pm
by Keith Thomas

My own experience with Brodifacoum (in an urban environment in Australia) is that my dogs were not interested in rats dying from the poison.

My own experience suggests that more extensive use of bait stations would reduce the likelihood that other species - particularly birds - would suffer. A bait station is a box like a small cereal packet laid on its side. The box has access holes for the rats at one side and deep inside on the other side the poison bait, formed into waxy blocks, is wired securely out of reach of birds and mammals larger than rats.

The use of bait stations would be far more expensive than aerial dropping of pellets, but it may be affordable in the areas presently frequented by humans and used for agriculture.

I hope the project is a success. We must value natural biodiversity more than we do. Rats are an invasive species in Australia too and a concerted campaign using Brodifacoum in bait stations and frequent monitoring and replenishing of the bait stations should be considered here, as well.

April 3, 2013 @ 6:06am
by Lois

Whether it's the right or wrong thing to do, if a proposal for the aerial baiting is submitted to the Federal Government, it will surely be approved (because proposals are rarely refused no matter how risky the activity). Perhaps one of the environmental precautions would be to first conduct a stocktake of the fauna on the island - past and present - and removing a male and female of each of those species temporarily. Once the baited species are removed from the island completely, then return the protected animals so their species can continue to breed.

April 3, 2013 @ 10:32am
by Terry Wilson

Its only reasonable for the community to have concerns about the use of brodifacoum as the preferred poison bait but I think residents will be more comfortable when they gain a more comprehensive understanding of how brodifacoum behaves in the environment. I understand that experts in toxicology and human health will be engaged to help deliver this information.

Its also worth remembering that most of the setlement area and about 10% of the forested areas of the Island are currently baited 4 x times per year to help reduce the damage from rats to the seed of the kentia Palm, which untill recently was a major industry for the Island. Whilst the poision is delivered via rat bait stations, its important to note that when a rat dies residual bait in its body is released to the environment. Also, rats remove bait from the bait stations for consumption at a latter time. As the rats die before they can consume all of these stashed reserves, poision will enter the environment.

The current baiting regime will result in the dispersal of brodifacoum to the environment for ever(or atleast untill the rats become immune and a more toxic chemical is introduced for their control). I would have thought that this never ending and ongoing, persistent application of the chemical to the environment will over time result in more exposure and be of more concern than a one off(two sweeps) application.

As a former Board employee and regular visitor, I look forward to the day that Lord Howe Island is free of rodents and becomes an even more attractive, unique and desirable place to live and visit.

April 3, 2013 @ 6:36pm
by Rob Rathgeber

I was interviewed by Bern for this article.....in a nutshell disappointed that he did not mention the concerns abound for the likely massive loss of numbers of wildlife to the point of extinction.....keeping a few pair of selected species in captivity ,which incidently has been an abject failure in the past, is a frightful proposition for, how long will it take for the birds to breed to be noticeable again. More disappointing is the fact Bern did not mention the serious concern for the impact of the toxin brodifacoum on human health, short term and long term for it remains in the body for 2 years, let alone the delicate corals and other marine species, and of course the surviving endemic birdlife health. There are proven cases of stillbirths in mammals such a sheep and goats in Alaska under the drop zones, with the Governor intervening on further aerial drops.
The eradication is DO-ABLE using the tried'n'proven bait station method...most successful eradications world-wide have been done using bait stations, and yes it is more labour-intensive, as nothing can be quicker, with potentially nastier outcomes than a helicopter strafing the island from above. One writer mentioned cost, well be assured the costings done for Lord Howe Island using bait stations come in about half the cost of the aerial method's $9million estimate, AND, hear this......bait stations will only use a fraction(20%) of the 40 tonnes that will be dumped from the air........even this amount is too much to push onto the environment , and many argue that our existing program of control is working excellently with no loss of endemic species in 60 years and us having been given World Heritage status in 1985. Many concerned like myself, a leasehoolder, are concerned that the brodifacoum contained in the bait will be the equivalent of 4000 years of the current level of poison used now to control pests....4000 years and if they stuff up the first drops should it rain within 3 days, then they intend to do the drop again...yep another 4000 years equivalent to be rained down on our island and its native species, and if there is a wind-shift it could end up in our water-tanks our sole supply of water for consumption.....put yourselves in our shoes, would you like the risk, our women and children will be exposed to.........BAIT STATIONS are proven, they are safe, for non-target species will not be effected, our pets wil not be able to access it. ALL WE NEED IS FOR THOSE WHO ADMINISTER THIS ISLAND TO WAKE UP FOR ALL OUR SAKES

April 4, 2013 @ 11:37am
by Ian Hutton

Yes this is a complex issue, and a challenge for planners involved in executing the eradication plan. There were some shortcomings in the draft eradication plan that the community are rightly concerned about, but these have been identified by a Community Liaison Group set up on the island to examine the issues; these have been put to the Island Administration to address.

One issue that is often raised is that the rats arrived in 1918 and have done their damage and the island ecology is in now equilibrium. This is of course far from the truth, with an estimated 70,000 rats out each night foraging on seeds, bird’s eggs and chicks, lizards, snails and many other invertebrate species. To say that life is normal with rats living on Lord Howe Island and nothing needs to be done is ignoring the situation.

Anyone that has been to Lord Howe Island or even seen photographs would realise that the terrain is too rugged (875metre high shear cliffs) for bait stations only to be used to eradicate rodents from the island. A combination of bait stations around the settlement areas to avoid risk to humans, and aerial bait distribution over mountains and cliffs is the only way to deliver a bait to all rodents, and achieve successful eradication.

Yes everyone is concerned about the welfare of the birdlife on the Island. Many residents currently use Talon, containing the eradication agent Brodifacoum, to kill mice and rats around their homes and tourist lodges. As a result there is ongoing death of Woodhens and other birds by secondary poisoning now; a well-planned and executed eradication plan would end this.

April 4, 2013 @ 11:06pm
by Steve Gale

We must consider ourselves fortunate to live in times where we can consider projects such as the ecological restoration of Lord Howe island- both technically and economically. I've been volunteering time to do bush regeneration on Lord Howe for about 14 years, I've witnessed the damage caused by rodents to plant and animal life, and regretted that these pests made it to the island.

The results of previous eradications (goats, pigs and feral cats), resulted in a significant ecological rebound. The approach was less chemical based, but intensive effort was also put into captive breeding of the Wood Hen.

My personal opinion is that Lord Howe will blossom post rat eradication. There is likely to be an extraordinary explosion in wildlife and botanical life. Provided care is taken, as with the Wood Hens previously, to protect vulnerable animal populations the Lord Howe in 10 years time will be an even more remarkable place.

I feel for the residents, they have the right to know how the widespread use of Brodifacoum will affect themselves, their family and the environment from when it is applied to when it is broken down by bacteria in the environment. Debate can then focus on the risks, how they are managed and how long they will last.

Let's do this project, but let's make sure those who live on the island know exactly the risks, know what to expect and are assisted where necessary to manage and mitigate any risks to their health.

May 17, 2013 @ 7:14pm
by Guy Whitworth

There's a new product that has just been discovered for organic farmers to erradicate rats: Vitamin D3. This vitamin causes rats to accumulate too much calcium in the blood, which causes asphyxiation. The rats die, but any predator that eats the rat will not be affected. If you put macadamia nut oil or any other vegetable oil on the cube or pellet of vitamin D3, this will make it attractive to the rodent, as rodents seek high energy foods. I would think that this would provide a better option for rodent control on Lord Howe Island than toxic chemicals, as it would have no unwanted side effects on the predatory birds, marine life, soil toxicity, or human health.

May 20, 2013 @ 8:02pm
by lance shaw

Well done guys. In a few years the negatives will be under the poo of the positives. Rock on planet Earth!!

May 27, 2013 @ 8:15pm
Show previous 39 comments
by Cecily Horne

I agree with Lance Shaw. Nothing worth doing is simple and easy. This is a war worth fighting in a considered and careful way using what resources we have, especially the experience and learning from previous projects.

June 3, 2013 @ 11:17am
by Eric Blair

Whilst I greatly appreciate the lucid and informative writing of Bernard Lagan & the excellent discussion of the comments surely Guy Whitworth's comment is a vital point which needs & deserves greater consideration.
Can Guy or anyone else provide any further details of this or other effective & ecologically safe chemical alternatives ?
Seems the best way to go from my perspective.......unless of course the baits were not of a high enough dose which could then simply breed really healthy rats with strong bones , better immune systems & excellent vision ! LOL

"There's a new product that has just been discovered for organic farmers to eradicate rats: Vitamin D3. This vitamin causes rats to accumulate too much calcium in the blood, which causes asphyxiation. The rats die, but any predator that eats the rat will not be affected.................... it would have no unwanted side effects on the predatory birds, marine life, soil toxicity, or human health."

September 20, 2013 @ 1:50am
by brendan mulvany

There is an alternative out there which has just been approved by the EU under the Biocide Directive. The product is Powdered Corn Cob and it is only kills rats and mice. Further tests on super rats are being carried out at Reading University led by Dr Alan Buckle. This is an organic product, recommended by the Barn Owl trust in the UK. The company is Zea-Sciences.com. Surely this is worth investigating ?

October 11, 2013 @ 4:53am
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