South Georgia Island Passes Major Milestone in Bid to Protect Bird Species

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South Georgia Island has passed a major milestone in its bid to protect the hundreds of bird species that call it home. The island has been declared rat-free after a years-long effort to rid this spectacular destination of the rodents, which were first introduced there when European ships arrived back in the 18th century. This was the largest rodent eradication program of all time.

Located in the Southern Ocean, South Georgia is remote, rugged, and beautiful. During the 1800’s it became an outpost for whalers as numerous whaling stations were built there. Of course, it also plays a prominent role in the Ernest Shackleton story as well, as it was there that the explorer and five of his men sailed in an effort to find help for their stranded comrades after getting stuck in the Antarctic ice for months. Shackleton himself died on a return trip to the Antarctic and is buried on South Georgia as well.

The rats arrived with the whalers, stowing away on ships and escaping once they reached land. The rodents then multiplied and spread across the landscape, threatening a number of bird species by stealing the eggs from their nests. Some of those species – like the South Georgia Pipit and the South Georgia Pintail – were pushed close to extinction and are found nowhere else on the planet.

In an effort to save them the rat eradication program began back in 2010 with $13 million spent on delivering 300 tons of poison rat bait. Apparently the efforts have paid off however, as there hasn’t been a single rat spotted on the island in several years. Better still, the bird species are rapidly rebounding and returning in massive numbers. South Georgia is home to literally millions of birds and it is a paradise for bird watchers who don’t mind visiting such a remote location.

A similar eradication process was conducted to remove herds of wild reindeer from the island as well. Those animals were brought along by the whalers too to serve as a source of food. But when the whaling industry eventually collapsed and left South Georgia in the 1960’s the reindeer were simply set free. With no natural predators they spread across the island, eating the natural grasses down to practically nothing. That also took important habitats away from the birds, which contributed to their shrinking numbers. The reindeer have been gone for several years as well, allowing South Georgia to return to its more natural state prior to humans first arriving.

I had a chance to visit South Georgia last year and can attest to how spectacular it is there. I’m not even a “birder” but still found it to be incredibly beautiful and rugged. This is good news for the environment in this very special place.

Kraig Becker