Rats targeted in mass poisoning to save endangered birds

A A A

British scientists are to mount a £1.7m operation to save a seabird from extinction by eradicating rats from one of the world's most remote islands.

Nearly 50 million pellets of rat poison will be dropped on one of the Pitcairn Islands – the last British Overseas Territory in the Pacific – to safeguard the future of the Henderson petrel, which is found nowhere else.

Most of the petrels' chicks are being eaten alive by the rats with which the island is infested. The population has tumbled to a fraction of its historic levels and may soon have disappeared. As a result, the United Nations has officially warned Britain that Henderson Island was in danger of losing its World Heritage Site status, granted in 1988 due to its position as one of the few atolls in the world whose ecology has been "practically untouched by a human presence".

In fact, the island was inhabited by Polynesian settlers several hundred years ago, who subsequently left for reasons that remain a mystery. But they brought with them a population of the non-native Pacific rat, which feeds on the island's wildlife and has already resulted in the extinction of four endemic bird species – three doves and a sandpiper – a fact only apparent by the bones which are left behind.

Now the remaining birds are all at risk, including four endemic species of landbird, the Henderson reed-warbler, the Henderson crake, the Henderson fruit-dove and the Henderson lorikeet. But most threatened are the seabirds, four species of ground-nesting petrels – dove-sized relatives of the albatross – of which the endemic Henderson petrel presents the crucial concern.

Its population, once thought to number in the millions, is down to about 16,000 pairs and each year more than 25,000 petrel chicks (95 per cent) meet a gruesome death by being eaten alive by the rats, leaving very few to survive to adulthood.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is mounting the operation, due to take place next August, providing the full funding of £1.7m can be found for the complex project, which will involve contractors sailing from New Zealand on a ship carrying two helicopters which will drop the pellets. More than £1m has already been raised and last week the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs awarded £200,000 to the scheme, leaving a further £400,000 to be found.

Most of Henderson is a rocky coral plateau covered in dense vegetation, making it impossible (and potentially very damaging environmentally) to lay the rat bait by hand, said Jonathan Hall, the RSPB co-ordinator for the project. The bait – cereal pellets containing an anti-coagulant called brodifacoum – will be scattered by helicopter.

The amount would be 98 tonnes, Mr Hall said which, at 500,000 per tonne, equals 49 million pellets. The whole island will have to be covered. Should a single pregnant rat be left the population might be rapidly restored.

It is not thought the rat poison will be consumed by other wildlife and once the rats are removed, the RSPB believes the populations of all the native birds will rise as they are freed from competition and predation by the non-native rodents.

"Henderson will be the largest tropical or sub-tropical island in the world to be cleared of rodents," said Mr Hall. "Once cleared, we could also find new species of insect, which are currently at population levels which are too low to be detected due to rat predation – and who knows what other secrets the island may still hold?"

Invasive rats, often coming from ships, are among the greatest threat to island wildlife across the world and are thought to be responsible for numerous extinctions and declines, especially amongst seabirds, as they prey on eggs, chicks and adults.

But over the past 20 years, techniques of large-scale rodent eradication have been developed and rats have now been successfully cleared from 284 islands across the world, many in Australia and New Zealand, allowing native wildlife to prosper again.

Suggested Topics
Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?