Saving South Georgia How a small team of conservationists embarked on an ambitious project to save a rare species on one of the remotest islands in the world

We were expecting to see three red and yellow specks to come flying over the snow-covered mountains that surrounded the bay where we were sheltering, but there was only one. Something had gone wrong.

Two days earlier we’d left two helicopters tied down in a sheltered spot to see out a storm, but the powerful wind had spun one helicopter, digging it into the ground, and snapped the rotor blade of the other. Both were completely broken. Without the two working helicopters, we couldn’t continue – years of planning and two seasons of spreading bait across the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia would have been for nothing.

One of the many highly crevassed glaciers of South Georgia – an impenetrable barrier to rats
One of the many highly crevassed glaciers of South Georgia – an impenetrable barrier to rats

A forgotten Eden, belonging only to albatrosses, penguins and seals, South Georgia is one of the most remote islands on the planet. The nearest permanent population is over 1500km away and the only human residents are British Antarctic Survey staff. Vast snow-capped peaks stand at 3000m above the ocean, and rivers of ice flow down to water that teams with krill; an abundant food source for the millions of animal residents. South Georgia takes your breath away.

We were there for a simple purpose – to free South Georgia from the rats that had plagued the island for almost two hundred years.  Elimination of the rats would ensure the survival of the most southerly songbird in the world, the endemic South Georgia Pipit, as well as bolstering populations of threatened seabirds.

The three helicopters landing at base camp
The three helicopters landing at base camp

If the purpose was simple, the operation, as is the case when attempting anything on South Georgia, was not. The success of ambitious projects like this rely on tenacity in the face of adversity – and the storm that put our helicopters out of action tested us to the limit. Through determination, hard graft and persistence in incredibly harsh conditions, however, the engineers had two helicopters flying by nightfall.

Captain Cook claimed South Georgia for Britain in 1775, returning with tales of vast numbers of seals that filled its shores. This was too much for sealers to resist; just a few years later the fur seals were being decimated and the vermin, stowed away on their boats, were feasting upon ground-nesting seabirds. These birds had evolved without any land-based predators, and it would be over 200 years until the song of the South Georgia Pipit would be heard on mainland South Georgia again.

A Norwegian brown rat finds the bait irresistible
A Norwegian brown rat finds the bait irresistible

The history of human influence on South Georgia is a recurring cycle of overexploitation and the eventual collapse of animal populations. In 2007 a small Scottish charity, the South Georgia Heritage Trust, decided the time had come to reverse some of the damage, and began planning the largest eradication project ever attempted.

We were also running out of time. Due to global warming, South Georgia’s glaciers are retreating at a rate of up to one metre a day. Soon beaches would become exposed, allowing rats to cross to previously inaccessible parts of the island and creating areas too extensive to bait. For the project to be a success we had to eliminate all of the rats. 99% wouldn’t be good enough; we had to get every last one.

Achieving this on an island 165km long, famed for its vicious winds and tempestuous seas, was a huge challenge. But by 2011 a team of eradication experts and individuals experienced in polar conditions had been handpicked to rid South Georgia of rats. It was a logistical nightmare, with three helicopters, 300 tonnes of bait, 900 drums of fuel, 10,000 teabags and 25 members of Team Rat to be shipped to the island. Resupply was not an option.

Some of the 900 drums of aviation fuel used in the project
Some of the 900 drums of aviation fuel used in the project

Field camps were erected across the island; we spent months camped amongst the ruins of an abandoned whaling station, with seals and penguins wandering past our tents.  Despite pressure to complete the baiting, we could only fly in calm conditions, which are infrequent at best on South Georgia. We’d spend days cooped up in our tents.

At night our breath formed icicles on the canopies of the tent, which often crashed down, soaking our sleeping bags. The nearby streams would freeze, forcing us to break through the ice to extract drinking water. Such tasks filled our days. The creature comforts of home seemed a long way away.

King penguin colony
King penguin colony

As soon as the wind dropped we’d spring in to action. The helicopters hovered expertly, dangling huge bait buckets, while loaders filled them with bag after bag of bait. Pilots flew along exact GPS lines, ensuring bait fell on every bit of potential rat habitat. If even a tiny area was missed, they did it again; no rat was safe from our skilled pilots.

It took three seasons to bait every last kilometre of the island; the helicopters flew the equivalent distance of three times around the world. Our success was under constant threat from poor flying conditions, mechanical failure, an inaccessible accident or simply a missed rat.

The daily commute across the vast, wild interior of South Georgia
The daily commute across the vast, wild interior of South Georgia

Poor weather nearly scuppered the second season. Winter came early and huge snow dumps buried our tents and made precision bait dropping impossible. The northern end of the island put up the greatest resistance, and after weeks of waiting to drop the final bait, it went right to the wire; on the last day the weather cleared and the pilots gave it a final push. Our chief pilot Peter Garden warned it would be a close call, and that if anyone felt uncomfortable we could abort. It was tense. Somehow, we dropped the last of the bait successfully and, after a long trying day, we left feeling immense elation.

South Georgia can’t be declared rat free until it has been checked next year, but early indications are promising. South Georgia Pipit song has been heard in some areas for the first time in living memory, and nests have already been located. Project leader Tony Martin was named Conservationist of the Year, and the success of this project paves the way for eradications on other afflicted islands. In an era of increasingly despondent environmental news, this is an example of how we can positively impact the natural world.

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Words and Photography: Oliver Prince

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