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South Georgia - Final Push Under Way

…to remove alien invasives

Final push to remove alien invasives from South Georgia gets underway

Team Rat prepares to head to the Southern Ocean to save this globally important seabird sanctuary…

In January 2015, an 18 strong international team led by a Scottish charity, the South Georgia Heritage Trust, will depart from the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic heading for the remote British Overseas Territory of South Georgia. This represents the third and final stage of a five year endeavour to rid the island of millions of invasive rats and mice, which threaten the survival of one of the world’s most important seabird sanctuaries.

The South Georgia Heritage Trust’s ambitious £7.5 million Habitat Restoration Project aims to reverse the ecological destruction wrought by invasive rodents that were introduced inadvertently by sealers and whalers to this wildlife oasis over a period of 200 years. More recently, climate change has been causing the retreat of the island’s glaciers allowing the rats to gain an ever stronger foothold on South Georgia.

After 18 months of logistical preparations:

· 95 tonnes of bait has been manufactured and packed into shipping containers to make the long journey from Bell Labs in Wisconsin, USA to South Georgia

· Three former air ambulance helicopters (one previously owned by Jackie Onassis) have completed their final engineering and flight checks at Oxford Airport in the UK and are already en route

· Members of Team Rat including three New Zealand pilots, two British engineers, two chefs and a doctor are making their own final preparations to join the RRS Ernest Shackleton, chartered from the British Antarctic Survey

On arrival in South Georgia, the team will begin laying bait depots and flying fuel drums, bait, equipment and food from the helideck of the RRS Ernest Shackleton to 7 or 8 separate forward operating bases. Once aerial baiting commences, GPS tracking systems will be used to keep an accurate record of bait coverage. The objective is to spread 95 tonnes of bait by helicopter with some hand-baiting over an area of 364 square kilometres, including a 227km stretch of sinuous coastline. The three month field operation between January and the end of April will involve almost 450 flying hours, requiring 260 bait pods to be laid and 450 drums of fuel to keep the helicopters in the skies above South Georgia.

A successful trial phase in 2011, followed by a second phase conducted in 2013 which experienced the worst weather conditions for a decade, shows every sign of having brought about the removal of rats from almost two-thirds of South Georgia. 65% of the island’s rat-infested areas has now been baited, making this project already five times larger than any other rodent eradication area ever tackled anywhere in the world.

The final challenge is to complete the baiting of the entire island during the brief sub-Antarctic summer months and this will be followed by two further years of monitoring by the South Georgia Heritage Trust and the South Georgia Government (GSGSSI). Assuming no signs of rodents have been discovered by this time, South Georgia will be declared free of rodents for the first time since humans first came to the island.

Project Director, Professor Tony Martin from the University of Dundee, leads an international team with expertise ranging from GPS and data management, to meteorology, polar logistics and an intimate knowledge of South Georgia and its wildlife. For more than a decade he has dreamed of a rat-free South Georgia. “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.

The Habitat Restoration Project has been funded by donations raised by SGHT and its US counterpart Friends of South Georgia Island (FOSGI), who have together so far raised some £6.5 million ($10.2 million) of the £7.5 million ($12 million) needed to complete the eradication project.

Financial support has come from the international business community; UK, US and Norwegian Trusts and Foundations; and from individual supporters, including thousands of cruise-ship passengers, whose visits to South Georgia have inspired support for this fragile ecosystem. The project has also received a grant of £250,000 from the UK Government (DEFRA) and a grant of £253,058 from the Darwin Initiative. Help-in-kind has come from US Bell Laboratories, who have supplied the bait; while in the UK, ARCO has provided clothing for the team.

South Georgia is one of the most important breeding sites in the world for penguins, albatrosses, prions, petrels, as well as the endemic South Georgia Pintail and South Georgia Pipit. Already there have been signs of recovery, with evidence of pipits breeding where previously they were absent, while Pintail chicks have been sighted in areas where they have not been seen for a century or more. Yet the existence of these species still hangs by a thread. Where once there were dense clouds of birds flying, nesting, and breeding all over the island, rats have changed this landscape. Now for the first time in two centuries the prospect of a different future for the wildlife of South Georgia is within sight.

South Georgia Heritage Trust

3rd December 2014