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Two Species of South Georgia Bird Populations Restored

4 min read

In addition to sharing important pieces of Antarctica's history and folklore and providing amazing adventures on its Antarctic expeditions, Quark supports a number of sustainability initiatives. These range from using clean burning fuel in our vessels and serving sustainable seafood, to supporting projects like the South Georgia Heritage Trust's (SGHT) Habitat Restoration Project, whose mission is to save the island's native habitat by eradicating rodents from the island.

South Georgia wildlife

South Georgia is one of the world's last great wilderness areas and amongst the wildlife on the island are 95% of the world's Antarctic fur seals and half the world's elephant seals. Four species of penguin nest on the island, including around 400,000 breeding pairs of king penguins. The island's birdlife includes albatross, skuas and petrels, as well as the endemic South Georgia pipit and South Georgia pintail.

The Habitat Restoration Project has spanned three seasons, over 18 months of preparation, and years of work provided by a number of pilots, engineers, chefs, and doctors. The project also involved over £7.5 million in support raised by SGHT and its US counterpart, Friends of South Georgia Island.

The result? For 2015, SGHT has reason to believe this massively important bird sanctuary is now free of destructive rats for the first time in two centuries.

Saving South Georgia's endemic birds

The first of phases of the project began with the goal of eradicating rats and other rodents that, through the years, while stowed away on whaling ships and other vessels, threatened the survival of South Georgia's seabirds and other wildlife. Not only were the rodents eating the eggs and chicks of ground-nesting birds, but the effects of climate change in the area, and the retreating of glaciers, allowed the rat population to thrive.

It is estimated that each year, thousands (if not millions) of birds had been eaten alive by rats, before the efforts of the project had begun.

The solution to eradicating South Georgia's rodents and saving the seabird population began with the fundraising efforts and donations of organizations such as South Georgia Heritage Trust, caretakers of Grytviken whaler's church, a popular destination for Quark passengers.

Penguins In South Georgia

South Georgia birds returning in record numbers

Each project phase required careful planning and attention to the best methods for distributing toxic rodent bait by helicopter, while preserving the ecosystem and ridding South Georgia of rodents using the most humane methods possible. Although somewhat unfortunate, it is agreed that saving the birds from extinction, specifically the South Georgia pipit, and ridding the area of the rodents is necessary.

As Project Director, Professor Tony Martin, Professor of Animal Conservation from the University of Dundee explains: “When I first began coming to this magical island 20 years ago, I only dreamed that it could one day be free of rats, and now because of our work, I can say that it is very likely that South Georgia is now rat free. Already the South Georgia pipit, the world's most southerly songbird, and South Georgia pintails, both endemic species found only here, are returning in numbers we could never have imagined, along with other species which were the victims of rats. But it will take decades, even centuries, before the birdlife returns to the numbers which existed before man – and rodents – arrived.”

Wrapping up a successful mission in South Georgia

After the completion of two phases, during which 65% of the infested areas of the island had been baited, thousands of birds per year had been saved. There were signs of recovery - no sightings of rats, sights of breeding pipits, and pintail chicks in areas where they had not been seen in more than a century.

This year, the last of the South Georgia Habitat Restoration project's over 800 total loads of rodent bait was delivered.

Over three seasons of fieldwork, thousands of helicopter flying hours, and thousands of square kilometers treated, the final phase of the project had headed toward completion. The final parts of the project will be spent searching for signs of and eradicating any surviving rodents, including a yacht-based survey carried out over the next couple of years.

The enormous scale of the project is revealed by the operational statistics shared with Quark:

  • A total of 260,000 acres successfully baited
  • 290 tonnes of rodenticide spread by three former air ambulance helicopters
  • 100% of the island's rat-infested areas are now baited, making it eight times larger than any other rodent eradication area
  • 1,000 flying hours, equivalent to flying around the world three times

Eradication work in South Georgia Continues

Professor Martin cautions, “It ain't over until the fat lady sings, and the completion of baiting may allow her a few celebratory warm-up warblings, but the full power of her voice will not be heard until we can be confident that all rodents on South Georgia have been vanquished.”

Alison Neil, the CEO of the South Georgia Heritage Trust adds, “The Habitat Restoration Project is far from over, especially in terms of the ongoing fundraising. While we cannot yet be certain that South Georgia is rat-free, although the signs are really positive, what we can say with confidence is that the baiting work has been completed successfully, safely, on time and within budget!”

In this last phase of the project, the team will continue dismantling field camps, inspecting, cleaning, drying and repairing loads of gear, and continue monitoring thousands of rodent detection devices left in Phase 2 Zones.

While much of the project has been wrapped up, there is still a great deal of work involved in ensuring rats are completely gone and South Georgia's wildlife and ecosystem is completely restored and healthy.

See South Georgia pipits and pintails

Adventurers wishing to explore the magnificent, populous South Georgia wildlife, including sightings of South Georgia pipist and South Georgia pintails, can do so on one of several South Georgia expeditions

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