Since being accidentally introduced in 1918, black rats have wreaked havoc on the unique wildlife of Australia's idyllic Lord Howe Island. Now in one of the most radical pest-extermination programs ever attempted, officials are calling for the native species to be rounded up while 42 tons of poison-laced bait are dropped over the island.
Although similar pest-eradication projects have occasionally been carried out on uninhabited islands before, this is the first time such a project has been contemplated in a place with a substantial human population. Lord Howe's 350 permanent residents will be given muzzles for their pets and are being told to keep an eye on their children while the bombardment occurs.
Meanwhile, entire populations of native birds will be caught and kept in cages for 100 days after the poison is dropped for their own protection, and all cows and chickens on the island will be slaughtered or shipped to the mainland beforehand.
Stephen Wills, chief executive of the Lord Howe Board, told The Independent that he supports the program. "This is one of the most beautiful places in the world, which is why it warrants such a significant and detailed program."
World Heritage-listed Lord Howe Island is so isolated from Australia's mainland that many of its native species can be found nowhere else, and it is said to be washed with the cleanest ocean on the planet. Two-thirds of it is a protected reserve while its surrounding waters are a marine park.
But those protections alone have not not helped the island deal with an invasive rat population. Already blamed for the extinction of five endemic bird species, the rats now threaten 13 other native birds, two reptiles, five plants and numerous invertebrates.
The rats pose a significant danger to the pristine habitat that makes the island unique, but many of the locals have expressed concerns about the radical nature of the plan. "The poison exposes the island, its environment and the people to a great deal of danger," local Clive Wilson told the Sydney Morning Herald. "I think they will do a lot of damage and in the end, there will still be rats."
The poison is scheduled to be dropped over the island beginning in August 2012. If approved, it would involve two separate aerial bombardments two weeks apart, as well as baiting by hand. The poison is expected to become harmless after 100 days.
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