EXTINCTION SHOCK: Key to saving wildlife could be wiping-out FLESH-EATING MICE

Although already having eaten hundreds of rare creatures into oblivion, by eradicating invasive species from 169 islands and restoring habitat could still thwart one of conservation’s burning threats with remarkable results. Remote archipelagos and ocean outposts have witnessed 75 per cent of known bird, mammal, amphibian and reptile extinctions since 1500. Many of the losses can be levelled at non-native animals such as goats, pigs as well as rats, cats and mice introduced by human settlers.

A new study published today explains how removing verminous mammals from 169 islands dotted around the planet – 20 of them UK Overseas Territories – would stem five hundred years of extinctions by benefiting 9.4 per of the most threatened island species.

One of the key locations in need of an eradication programme is Gough Island in the South Atlantic, a UK World Heritage Site and part of the British Overseas Territory of Trista da Cunha. 

It has been ranked third in the islands that would benefit from invasive vermin removal. Mice have become alarming predators of Gough Island’s seabirds, resulting in two million fewer eggs and chicks each year and putting some species at high risk of extinction.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds along with Tristan da Cunha authorities are working with the UK Government and South African officials to eradicate Gough Island’s mice and improve its rugged terrain for wildlife next year, helping two Critically Endangered birds, the Tristan albatross and Gough bunting.

The study looked at the distribution of 1,184 highly threatened native birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians and 184 non-native mammals on 1,279 islands worldwide. It drew up a list of 169 islands where eradication schemes could start from 2020 or 2030, based on the extinction risk of native species, the impact of invasive animals and the technical and political feasibility of such a programme.

In total, 107 islands were identified where it was both technically and politically feasible to initiate an eradication programme by 2020. Between collecting the data and writing the report, several of these islands carried out successful eradication schemes, including the UK's South Georgia, where invasive rodents have been wiped out and the South Georgia pipit has made a comeback.

Work is also under way to remove introduced rats and feral cats from islands in the Turks and Caicos in the Caribbean to protect the critically endangered Turks and Caicos iguana.

A rat eradication programme would also save the endangered Henderson petrel on Henderson Island, part of the UK's Pitcairn group in the Pacific, say experts.

The new study, titled “Globally important islands where eradicating invasive mammals will benefit highly threatened vertebrates”,  has been published in the science journal, PLOS ONE.

Its lead author, Dr Nick Holmes from Island Conservation, explains: “Eradicating invasive mammals from islands is a powerful way to remove a key threat to island species and prevent extinctions and conserve biodiversity.

“This study is an invaluable global assessment of where these future conservation opportunities exist and supports regional and national decision-making about where and how to prevent extinctions.”

The need to back eradications with official support and finance is stressed by Jonathan Hall, the RSPB’s head of UK Overseas Territories, who explained: “This study shows how important it is to remove invasive mammals from islands to prevent further extinctions.

“What is needed now is the political will and funding to help carry out this much needed work and restore these islands to their previous magnificence.”

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