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RSPB plans to remove rodents from Pacific paradise

Last modified: 18 October 2010

Murphy's Petrel

After the rat eradication the RSPB expects to see the populations of petrels soar.

Image: Richard Cuthbert

The RSPB has announced today that it intends to prevent the global extinction of a unique British seabird on the Pacific Island of Henderson, by removing the island’s non-native rats which are eating 25,000 seabird chicks alive annually and competing with the native birds for food.

The Society is making plans for the project to take place next year, provided that it can raise an additional £600,000 in donations, to bridge the gap in the £1.7m project, which will prevent the extinction of the Henderson petrel – found nowhere else in the world. It will also enable the populations of three other seabirds on the island to recover their populations dramatically.

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One of the most remote places on earth

Dr Tim Stowe, is the RSPB’s international director. Commenting on the eradication of rats from Henderson Island, part of the Pitcairn UK Overseas Territory, he said: “Henderson Island, in the central Pacific, is one of the most remote places on earth. But its wildlife are not immune from problems.

“Non-native Pacific rats, which were introduced by Polynesian settlers, have been ravaging the island’s wildlife. Four of the island’s unique bird species have become extinct and the island’s remaining species are vulnerable to extinction unless we remove the rats.

“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. One of the greatest contributions to halting global biodiversity that we can make in the UK is to stem the declines in our own Overseas Territories.”

The operation will begin next August, provided the funding is secured by July. It is intended that a team of contractors and their equipment, including two helicopters, will be brought in by ship.

Special risk

At special risk from the rats are the four species of petrel – dove-sized relatives of the albatross – which nest on Henderson, of which the Henderson petrel is not known to nest anywhere else in the world. Historically, the island’s petrel population was thought to number a possible five million pairs, but the rats have shrunk this population to 40,000 pairs. Each year over 25,000 petrel chicks (95 per cent) are eaten alive by the rats, leaving few chicks to survive to adulthood.

Although Henderson – a UK World Heritage Site – only supports four species of landbird, all these species are confined to the island: the Henderson reed-warbler, Henderson Crake; Henderson fruit-dove and the Henderson lorikeet. Once the rats are removed, the RSPB believes the populations of these birds will rise as they are freed from competition and predation by the non-native rodents.

Jonathan Hall is a project officer with the RSPB. He said: “Henderson will be the largest tropical or sub-tropical island in the world to be cleared of rodents. Once cleared, we could find new species of insect, which are currently at population levels which are too low to be detected due to rat predation – and who knows what other secrets the island may still hold?”

How you can help

We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to restore Henderson Island.