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One of World's Last Great Wildernesses Declared Free of Bird-Killing Rats

Animals
Penguin colony, St. Andrews Bay, South Georgia. size4riggerboots / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

Following a £10 million ($13.5 million) eradication scheme and nearly a decade of work, South Georgia was officially declared rodent-free on Tuesday, the first time since humans arrived on the island more than 200 years ago.

The British territory is one of the world's last great wildlife areas. There you'll find 98 percent of the world's Antarctic fur seals, half the world's elephant seals and four species of penguins—including King Penguins with around 450,000 breeding pairs. The birdlife includes albatrosses, prions, skua, terns, sheathbills and petrels.


However, in the late-18th century, rats and mice started arriving on the island as stowaways on sealing and whaling vessels. The invasive rodents preyed on the eggs and chicks of many of the native birds, including the South Georgia pipit and South Georgia pintail, which are found nowhere else on Earth.

In 2008, conservationists started to plan a "rodent eradication" project to reverse two centuries of human-induced damage, so that millions of birds could reclaim their ancestral home, according to the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) and Friends of South Georgia Island, which spearheaded the effort.

The Habitat Restoration Project covered 108,723 hectares (269,000 acres), which is more than eight times larger than any other rodent eradication area ever tackled anywhere in the world.

The project involved three phases of baiting, including aerial baiting with three helicopters and hand baiting. In the final phase, an expedition team called Team Rat spent six months on the island searching for any signs of surviving rats. Three "sniffer" dogs covered a total of 1,504 miles and their two handlers walked about 1,000 miles in search of rats. They deployed more than 4,600 detection devices including chewsticks coated with peanut butter, tracking tunnels and camera traps to check for signs of rodent activity.

A press release noted, "This distance, roughly the equivalent of a return trip from London to Dundee, is all the more impressive given the rugged and challenging terrain of South Georgia. Together, the handlers climbed the equivalent ascent of Mount Everest 8 times over, and the dogs climbed Mount Everest 12.9 times over."

Mike Richardson, the chairman of the SGHT Habitat Restoration Project steering committee, celebrated the success of the rodent-eradication program.

"It has been a privilege to work on this conservation project, the largest of its kind anywhere in the world, and I am immensely proud of what the small charity has achieved—it has been a huge team effort," he said in a statement.

The press release said that no sign of rodents have been detected, with some bird species already showing very dramatic signs of recovery.

Richardson added, "The Trust can now turn its attention and efforts to working with the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands on conservation of a different kind: the conservation and reinterpretation of the island's historic cultural heritage to educate and enlighten future generations about our environment."

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