A Tristan albatross on Gough Island attending to her dead chick, which was killed by invasive mice. (Image: RSPB)
The covid-19 pandemic has forced a delay to an effort to protect vulnerable seabirds from large, invasive mice on an island in the South Atlantic Ocean. The suspension left a team of conservationists stranded in one of the most remote places on Earth, an ordeal that finally ended this week.
Twelve members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) arrived on Gough Island at the end of February, but by mid-March, as the covid-19 pandemic swept across the globe, the team decided to postpone this year’s mission. Hard to believe, but the RSPB members only arrived home this week, according to a press release issued by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Sadly, the postponement means invasive mice on the island can continue to attack seabird chicks with impunity, in a major setback for the conservationists.
“Given the coronavirus pandemic and increasing global travel restrictions, it has become impossible to complete the Gough Island restoration operation this season,” wrote the RSPB at its website. “The loss of another season’s chicks to mouse predation is devastating to us all. We remain committed to our mission to restore Gough as a seabird paradise, and our intention is to return in 2021.”
This was the first year in which the RSPB was planning to prune back the mice population by dropping cereal pellets containing rodenticide. Not all of the team had arrived at the island by March, and with crucial personnel missing, they were unable to carry out the planned mission, The Guardian reports.
Gough Island is a remote British territory and a World Heritage Site located in the South Atlantic Ocean. Measuring 13 kilometres long and 7 kilometres wide, the island is located 2,736 kilometres west of Cape Town, South Africa. It’s also 2,700 kilometres south of St. Helena, a remote island made famous for hosting the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte until his death in 1821.
The island is a vitally important breeding area for seabirds, including the critically endangered Tristan albatross, and the restoration program seeks to remove invasive mice from the island. Though they barely look it, these oversized mice are descended from ordinary house mice, which were accidentally introduced to the island by people, likely sailors in the 19th century.
The mice slowly gnaw away at the live chicks, resulting in the deaths of more than 2 million birds each year, according to the Foreign Office. Because the birds nest on the ground, they are vulnerable to the mice, a species not typically associated with carnivorousness. Upsettingly, the mice are now attacking adult seabirds as well.
With the postponement of the 2020 mission, the 12 members were left stranded on Gough Island, as widespread restrictions on foreign travel precluded a quick getaway.
“We knew the team back in the UK were working on a plan, and they communicated to us regularly, though the information and plan seemed to change almost on a daily basis due to the ever-changing border closures and travel restrictions around the world,” explained Kate Lawrence, a RSPB team member, in the Foreign Office press release. “Travelling via Cape Town, the Falkland Islands, St Helena and Ascension Island were all possibilities at some point.”
The Falkland Islands, another British territory, was ruled out for safety reasons. This would have required the team to travel for 20 days aboard their yacht in steadily deteriorating weather conditions.
Ultimately, the team agreed to Ascension Island, which is located 3,630 kilometers (2,255 miles) from Gough Island. Riding aboard their yacht in choppy waters, it took them 12 days to reach Ascension.
“Sailing in that boat for 12 days, looking at the endless blue ocean around me, made the world feel quite big, in contrast to the previous ease of air travel and the rapid spread of Covid-19, which makes the world seem so small,” said Lawrence.
Five days after arriving at Ascension, the team boarded an RAF A400 transport plane, which was heading back to the UK after delivering much-needed supplies to the island.
Ridding an island of mice sounds like a daunting proposition, but similar efforts elsewhere have yielded positive results, including at South Georgia Island, which was recently declared free of rodents. Same for New Zealand’s Antipodes Island.