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
News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
peopleReports that Brand could stand for Mayor on an 'anti-politics' ticket
News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
News
Voluminous silk drawers were worn by Queen Victoria
newsThe silk underwear is part of a growing trade in celebrity smalls
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Candidates with surnames that start with an A have an electoral advantage
newsVoters are biased towards names with letters near start of alphabet
Arts and Entertainment
Isis with Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?