Mar 22
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In the News: Oil spill threatens island’s endangered penguins

Hundreds of seabirds have been found covered in oil after a cargo vessel was wrecked on Nightingale Island, part of the Tristan da Cunha UK Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic.

Conservationists are warning of an environmental disaster, as the island supports huge numbers of seabirds, including nearly half of the world’s population of the northern rockhopper penguin (Eudyptes moseleyi), which is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Photo of northern rockhopper penguin pair at nest

There are more than 200,000 northern rockhopper penguins breeding on Nightingale Island.

Some 1,500 tonnes of heavy crude oil from the MS Olivia, which was shipping soya beans between Rio de Janeiro and Singapore, is leaking into the sea. According to the RSPB, oil now surrounds Nightingale Island and extends in a slick 8 miles offshore, threatening wildlife as well as an economically important rock lobster fishery. 

The consequences of this wreck could be potentially disastrous for wildlife and the fishery-based economy of these remote islands,” said Richard Cuthbert, an RSPB biologist. 

The Tristan da Cunha islands, especially Nightingale and adjacent Middle Island, hold millions of nesting seabirds as well as four out of every ten of the world population of the globally endangered Northern Rockhopper Penguin.”

Photo of northern rockhopper penguin colony

A colonial species, northern rockhopper penguins nest on cliffs and rocky gullies, usually near to freshwater.

Concerns surround not only the oil spill, but also the risk of any rats on the vessel colonising the mammal-free island, which would further endanger the nesting birds. 

The Tristan Conservation Department – which rapidly deployed nine people to the island – has already placed baited rodent traps on the shore where the bulk of the vessel has grounded. 

Trevor Glass, Tristan conservation officer, said: “The scene at Nightingale is dreadful as there is an oil slick encircling the island. The Tristan conservation team are doing all they can to clean up the penguins that are currently coming ashore. It is a disaster.”

Photo of great shearwater in flight over sea

Large numbers of great shearwaters also breed on Nightingale Island.

A salvage tug is currently en-route from Cape Town with an experienced crew and environmental experts, but it is not due to arrive at the island until Monday.

View ARKive for more species found on Tristan da Cunha. 

Read the BirdLife International press release. 

Alex Royan, ARKive Species Text Author

Feb 25
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In the News: Rat eradication on South Georgia

The largest rat eradication programme in history is to begin on a remote UK island, in a bid to save millions of seabirds from these invasive predators.

South Georgia pipit portrait

The South Georgia pipit is the only songbird in the Antarctic region, but is under threat from predation by brown rats.

Brown rats reached the island of South Georgia, in the South Atlantic Ocean, around 200 years ago, transported on sealing and whaling ships. Since then, the rodents have wreaked havoc on the island’s bird life, eating the eggs and chicks of ground-nesting seabirds and driving the endemic South Georgia pipit towards extinction.

Largest ever rat eradication

The eradication programme will involve dropping poison bait from helicopters in an attempt to rid the island of rats. The first poison drops are about to begin, but will initially take place over a limited area to assess whether the techniques are working. If successful, the programme will then be extended to the whole island.

Photo of brown rat

The brown rat has been introduced to many islands around the world, often causing great damage to native wildlife.

With 800 square kilometres to cover, this is the largest eradication programme ever attempted. However, scientists hope that it will clear South Georgia of rats within the next five years.

South Georgia’s birds to benefit

Once the rats are gone, tens of millions of seabirds could return to South Georgia each year to breed. According to Professor Tony Martin, the South Georgia Habitat Restoration Project Director, “The vast majority of birds that should be breeding on South Georgia have been displaced by the presence of rats. Rats have gone virtually everywhere except the very cold southern coast. We are looking to restore millions, possibly tens of millions of sea birds to the island.”

South Georgia pintail side profile

Found only on South Georgia, the South Georgia pintail is the most southerly recorded waterfowl species.

Species which will benefit from the rat eradication include the South Georgia pintail, a subspecies of yellow-billed pintail endemic to South Georgia, as well as seabirds such as Wilson’s storm-petrel and the white-chinned petrel.

Scientists are also confident that the programme will help save the South Georgia pipit from extinction. The world’s most southerly songbird, this endemic species has been lost from most of the main island and is now restricted largely to offshore islets. 

 

Photo of Wilson's storm-petrel in flight

Wilson’s storm-petrel is just one of many seabirds that will benefit from rat removal on South Georgia.

Professor Tony Martin says, “The exciting thing for me about this is there are few things you can do to revert the impact of human activity on the planet but what we are going to be doing will reverse two centuries of human impacts on the island.”

Visit the South Georgia Heritage Trust and find out more about the UK Overseas Territories.

View species from South Georgia on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author 

 

Oct 20
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Rat eradication planned for Pacific Island

Henderson petrel

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has announced plans to remove non-native rats from the Pacific Island of Henderson, in an attempt to prevent the global extinction of a unique seabird, the Henderson petrel (Pterodroma atrata). The introduced Polynesian rats (Rattus exulans) are eating an estimated 25,000 petrel chicks every year, and are also thought to be threatening the island’s other native bird species.

Part of the UK Overseas Territory of the Pitcairn Islands, Henderson Island is a remote, uninhabited island with a unique array of wildlife, including large numbers of breeding seabirds and four endemic land birds. Although still remarkably untouched by humans, the presence of rats is threatening the survival of many of the island’s native species, and may already be responsible for the extinction of four endemic birds. If left unchecked, rat predation will also lead to the eventual extinction of the Henderson petrel, which is not known to breed anywhere else in the world.

In an attempt to save the Henderson petrel, the RSPB is now planning the complete eradication of rats from the island. Speaking about the planned project, Dr Tim Stowe, the RSPB’s International Director, said, “This week, the world’s leaders will be gathering in Japan to discuss how to stem the catastrophic declines in global biodiversity, especially on islands. This project is a good example of how we can make a difference to global conservation, provided more donors can help us reach our funding target.”

Planned to start in August 2011, the eradication programme will cost a total of £1.7 million, of which a further £600,000 is still needed in donations. With 95 percent of petrel chicks on the island lost to rats every year, the need for this project is clear. However, if successful, the eradication should not only save the Henderson petrel, but also benefit Henderson Island’s other threatened wildlife and help restore the natural beauty of this remote Pacific paradise.

Some of the species unique to Henderson Island include:

Henderson crake Found only on Henderson Island, the Henderson crake is a flightless bird whose eggs and chicks are vulnerable to predation by introduced rats.

 

Henderson fruit-dove

As its name suggests, the Henderson fruit-dove feeds on a variety of fruits. Its restriction to a single island makes this colourful species vulnerable to extinction.

 

The HendersoHenderson reed-warblern reed-warbler is another bird species unique to Henderson Island. Like all of the island’s species, it is vulnerable to any further introductions of mammalian predators, such as the black rat (Rattus rattus).

 

Also known Henderson lorikeetas Stephen’s lorikeet, the endemic Henderson lorikeet, along with Henderson Island’s other bird species, is vulnerable to the introduction of avian diseases, such as avian malaria and pox.

 

To find out more about the planned rat eradication programme on Henderson Island, see:

For more information on conservation in the Pitcairn Islands, see:

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