The largest ever-conducted rat eradication program on South Georgia has reached a huge milestone last Monday. The helicopter transporting the last baiting bucket filled with the blue baits to battle the rat infestation, landed at 12.50 local time at the camp and thus finishes the baiting of the Southwest of the island. During three field seasons since 2011, more than 800 buckets with bait were distributed over an area of more than 1’000 square kilometers. Now a monitoring program commences to check the result of this mammoth task.

On January 28 2015 saw the start of Phase 3 of the ambitioned project to finish the rat infestation on South Georgia. A team of 18 men and women led by Tony Martin, project leader at South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) arrived on board of the RSS Shackleton in Grytviken in order to bait the areas southeast of Cumberland Bay. The team brought three helicopters with them to use for distribution of the bait.

For a successful distribution of the bait in the different areas, the team had to undertake a large logistic effort by setting up camps and using helicopters. Photo: Tony Martin, SGHT
For a successful distribution of the bait in the different areas, the team had to undertake a large logistic effort by setting up camps and using helicopters. Photo: Tony Martin, SGHT

Phase 3 caught a bad start right away when a storm badly damaged one of the helicopters during the depot-laying phase. The damage to the helicopter was so severe to rend it unusable for the rest of the campaign. Luckily, the other two helicopters were still operational to spread the bait over the remaining 364 square kilometers. The largest part of the island had been baited during Phase 2 in 2013 and an ongoing monitoring program assures the success of this phase.

The rat-infested areas of South Georgia had been divided into 9 areas, which were baited in three phases starting in 2011. A two-year monitoring program after each phase controls the success of the baiting action. Source: SGHT
The rat-infested areas of South Georgia had been divided into 9 areas, which were baited in three phases starting in 2011. A two-year monitoring program after each phase controls the success of the baiting action. Source: SGHT

The weather conditions during the phase were the most important factor for a successful completion of the project. Several times, the team had to bring Phase 3 to a standstill due to bad weather. However, having learned from the previous phases, a radio network along the island assured continuous communication between the team, the helicopters and weather observers at Cape Charlotte. Thus, the helicopters could commence flying as soon as the weather permitted a safe operation. Another improvement were the larger spinner buckets hanging underneath the helicopters and distributing the bait load. The new size allowed a bigger distribution radius and less flight time. Despite some bad weather intermezzos, the weather gods were smiling down on Team Rat, e.g. during the baiting of St. Andrew’s Bay and its large king penguin colony. Thanks to good and calm conditions, the baiting had been conducted in no time with no disturbance for the penguins. Afterwards, another bad weather system kept the team on the ground for a while but by March 23, all areas between St. Andrew’s Bay and Copper Bay had received their bait treatment and end the baiting season.

More than 400’000 king penguins breed in the large open area of St. Andrew’s Bay. Strong winds and precipitation often occur in this part of South Georgia. Nonetheless, the team succeeded in dropping the bait here, too.
More than 400’000 king penguins breed in the large open area of St. Andrew’s Bay. Strong winds and precipitation often occur in this part of South Georgia. Nonetheless, the team succeeded in dropping the bait here, too.

Tony Martin, who leads the project for the last five years, had participated in every field season. “I watched the last load depart with mixed feelings. Overwhelmingly, I was relieved that this major goal has been achieved safely – a sore back here and there, but otherwise Team Rat is safe and well”, he states in a Newsletter. “But then came the realization that within a few weeks this unique and tight-knit group will disperse. … And I suspect that none of us will again have the privilege of experiencing this jewel of an island, in all its facets, so intimately.” However, the end of the baiting does not mean the end of the project. Team Rat will remain another three weeks on South Georgia and monitor the areas of Phase 2. The now baited areas will be monitored later. “To that end a large scale yacht-based survey with all its concomitant costs will be carried out in a couple of years’ time; only after that we truly can relax and know that the job has indeed been done”, says Tony Martin.

The size of the project and the rough terrain asked for a proper teamwork, which added to the success of the project. Photo: Tony Martin, SGHT
The size of the project and the rough terrain asked for a proper teamwork, which added to the success of the project. Photo: Tony Martin, SGHT

South Georgia is home to millions of seabirds in the middle of the Southern Ocean. The island, which is a British Overseas Territory and governed by the Falkland Islands, measures over 160 kilometers in length and is 38 kilometers wide. Most of the island is covered with glaciers and a large mountain range extends from the middle. However, the coastal areas are important breeding grounds for millions of penguins, seals and seabirds, among them several albatross species. Some of the bird species are endemic and are thus nowhere else found, e.g. the South Georgia pintail and the South Georgia pipit, the southern-most songbird in the world. The rats, which had been introduced by sealers and whalers, caused substantial damage among the populations of smaller birds and the vegetation. The success of the project was apparent in some areas already, e.g. the reappearance of pipits in some areas in which it had disappeared decades ago. It seems as if the future for the bird population is brighten up again.

The South Georgia pipit, the Southern-most songbird in the world, can now return to its former breeding grounds, from which it once had been expelled by rats. Photo: Sally Poncet
The South Georgia pipit, the Southern-most songbird in the world, can now return to its former breeding grounds, from which it once had been expelled by rats. Photo: Sally Poncet

Source: South Georgia Heritage Trust