Polar Notes

May 2024

South Georgia: Celebrating Five Years Rat Free

Alison Neil, CEO of the South Georgia Heritage Trust, marks five years since the sub-Antarctic Island of South Georgia was declared rodent free and looks back on what it took to get there and how the island’s wildlife is now recovering.

Photo of Alison Neil and SGHT Chairman, Nick Prentice, with the former GSGSSI biosecurity dog team

When I joined the South Georgia Heritage Trust it was less than a year since the charity had been founded in 2005, and it was a tiny organisation with only a few supporters. Despite its small size, an early aim for the charity was to eradicate invasive rats and mice from South Georgia which were having a devastating effect on the island’s native birds. Such an ambitious project was very much a pipe dream until, in 2007, the USA Island Foundation decided to donate US$750K to the Trust, to encourage an attempt at a trial phase. Founding Trustee, Frederik Paulsen, gave a gift that allowed two helicopters to be purchased (buying was cheaper than leasing!) and suddenly the impossible became…well…improbable. Could this tiny charity alone really tackle the removal of millions of rats and mice?

The answer was no – we couldn’t do it by ourselves. We had no expertise, little money and three staff members. The story of the success of the South Georgia rodent eradication, the biggest ever undertaken in the world, is a story of how amazing things can happen when people and organisations with the same aim work together.

The first step towards success was the appointment of Tony Martin as Project Director in 2009. He brought together an international team of eradication experts by openly admitting that he (and SGHT) knew nothing about removing alien invasive species, and seeking help and advice wherever he could. The crack team of conservationists who offered their services was nicknamed ‘Team Rat’. They, plus two Bolkow helicopters, hitched a lift to South Georgia from a friendly cruise operator in 2010-11. Cheered on by the passengers, the helicopters took off from the ship’s helipad and the trial baiting at Cumberland Bay had begun.

Baiting helicopter at South Georgia

In that same Antarctic season, SGHT Trustee Denise Landau established the Friends of South Georgia Island organization, a Colorado not-for-profit that allowed USA citizens to make a tax-deductible donation for South Georgia. Being able to plug into the generosity of USA visitors to South Georgia was a real turning point for the fundraising fortunes of the project. The project also received generous support from the UK government through DEFRA and the Darwin Project.

Two years later we were able to take on the second and largest phase of the project, covering all of South Georgia’s north-west coastline, followed in 2015 by the final baiting phase in the south-east.  

The entire project had cost approximately £10 million.

The final stage was to return once more in 2017/18, and using various methods including rodent detector dogs, check all the baited areas to ensure there was no sign of any remaining rodents. On May 8 2018 we were able to announce the island was officially declared rat free.

GSGSSI  biosecurity detector dog, Samuri, on South Georgia

We had been surprised and delighted by very early signs of recovery in some bird species, especially the endemic South Georgia Pipit. This bird was one of the most threatened and had been unable to successfully breed in areas where rats were present, but almost as soon as an area was baited, the birds were seen breeding in the newly cleared areas.

The endemic South Georgia pipit

Analysis of reported bird sightings shows the continued recovery of the South Georgia Pipit (see graph). With its quick breeding habits and ability to have several broods a year, it is likely that pipit population are already back to what they should be. Larger bird species breed more slowly, and so are taking longer to recover, but there is now plenty of evidence of recovery in other bird species too; for instance new or expanding prion and petrel colonies.

The graph shows a dramatic increase in reports of pipit sightings once the Habitat Restoration Project was underway

“We had not only successfully funded and carried out the world’s largest island eradication, saving countless native birds and preventing the extinction of entire species, we had shown the world what was possible when non-profits, government, companies and individuals work together.“ – Alison Neil, SGHT CEO

Preventing rodents returning to South Georgia is a priority. The Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands has implemented important biosecurity measures, establishing its own permanent dog and handler team to check vessels bound for South Georgia to ensure no rats can hitch a lift. SGHT now raises funds to support the dog team because it, and the other biosecurity measures in place, are vital to protect South Georgia’s wildlife and the legacy of this world-leading project.