Ecuador To Drop 20 Tons Of Poison On Galapagos To Kill Rats
November 16, 2012

Ecuador To Drop 20 Tons Of Poison On Galapagos To Kill Rats

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

For decades, conservationists have been vying to protect the native bird and reptile species of the Galapagos Archipelago, many species which are exclusively found here and nowhere else. Now, Ecuadorian conservationists are about to begin an ambitious project to rid the Island group of more than 180 million invasive rats that are damaging the delicate ecosystem.

In what is being described as the biggest pest-removal project in South American history, the conservation team plan to drop, by helicopter, more than 22 tons of poison over Pinzon Island and another islet adjacent to Pinzon by the end of this month to try and rid the isles of their infestation.

“It´s one of the worst problems the Galapagos have. (Rats) reproduce every three months and eat everything,” a Nature Conservancy specialist involved in the operation told the Associated Press.

The conservancy said the bait being used has been specially formulated and tested, and will only affect the rats in question. However, Galapagos hawks and some iguanas have been rounded up to safeguard them from eating the poisoned rats. These animals will be reintroduced once the threat subsides.

The invasive rats were accidentally introduced to the Galapagos as early as the 17th century, stowing aboard whaling and other ships. Once taking hold on the island, these pests began eating everything in sight, including eggs and hatchlings of the islands´ native species–giant tortoises, lava lizards, snakes, hawks and iguanas. Not only have they damaged the native animal population, but these pestilent invaders have also depleted the number of plants on which native species feed. Some bird species that are now endangered on the Island group, are so because of the rat infestation.

“It´s one of the worst problems the Galapagos have. [Rats] reproduce every three months and eat everything,” Juan Carlos Gonzalez, a Nature Conservancy specialist, told Mail Online.

The project, funded by conservation groups and the Galapagos National Park Service, will cost in the neighborhood of $1.8 million. “This is a very expensive but totally necessary war,” added Gonzalez.

While some may see the poisoning efforts as a deliberate measure that could disrupt the delicate ecosystem of one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, conservationists say the risks are minimized to ensure this is the lesser of two evils.

"No one likes to see the extermination of large numbers of animals, but it is either the rats or the tortoises and iguanas," said Scott Henderson of Conservation International. "Any conservation measure entails a measure of risk, but in this case the risks are low and carefully calculated."

The Black Rat, and related Brown Rat, have infested the islands for centuries and are among the most serious of threats facing the Island group. Left unchecked, these animals could wipe out many species in our lifetime.

“Introduced rats, both black and brown, wreak havoc among the wildlife of Galapagos by preying on eggs and hatchlings of bird and reptile species, to such an extent that one species of Galapagos tortoise has had no natural recruitment for nearly a century, and some unique bird species have become critically endangered. Their control and possible eradication in specific sites is a major priority for conservation in the islands,” explains the Galapagos Conservancy on its website.

"The rats cause a great deal more damage than the poison," Linda Cayot, science adviser for Galapagos Conservancy, told The Guardian´s Jonathan Watts. "They have decimated 100% of tortoise hatchlings for the past 100 years."

The Galapagos Archipelago is a UNESCO world heritage site and was the inspiration for Charles Darwin´s theory of evolution. The island group has no less than 500 endemic plant and animal species, many of which may not continue to flourish if the rats are left to their damaging ways.

Cayot said years of planning have gone into this operation to ensure the right measures were being introduced that would cause the least harm to the delicate ecosystem.

The rodenticide being used has been developed by Bell Laboratories in the US. Tests were conducted to ensure the small cubes will attract rats but will have little influence on other species. The cubes should disintegrate within a few days if left uneaten. Any of these cubes that are eaten by the rats, contain a strong anti-coagulant that accelerates decomposition once the rats ingest them.

The operation will begin on the island of Pinzon and another small islet nearby and teams will monitor the situation over the next year. If the campaign proves successful, the team will move on to the bigger Floreana Island. The human inhabited islands of Isabela and Santa Cruz will come last. In all, the operation will attempt to wipe out more than 180 million rats over 19 islands by the end of this decade.

"If we miss even one pregnant female, it won't succeed," said Cayot.

This will be, by far, the biggest campaign set forth to eradicate such a prevalent pest from such a vast ecosystem. Past attempts have been made, with success, to remove pigs, goats, cats and dogs from the islands. But with more than 180 million rats to contend with, nobody has seen a measure of this scope before. All we can do is sit back and hope for the best.