Waging war on the rat

First aired on The Current (19/7/11)


The greatest threat to several unique ecosystems around the world is rats. That's right, the ugly, smelly creatures you find in sewer systems and mentoring Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are wreaking havoc on island paradises around the world, including right here in Canada. And conservationists have decided to do something about it.

On August 1, a team of conservationists will launch a rat eradication mission on islands in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site in British Columbia. This "war" on the worldwide rat population is ramping up, and William Stolzenburg chronicles this centuries-long battle in his new book, Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and The World's Greatest Wildlife Rescue.

Rats are more than pests. Their existence on these islands has led to the endangerment of several species. Rats arrived by boat, as people began to explore uninhabited regions in the Pacific thousands of years ago. And when the rats arrive, "there's carnage," Stolzenburg explained to The Current guest host Jim Brown in a recent interview. "The rat has found himself in Candyland. He's basically in the land of sitting ducks and they are very good [at] making meat of defenseless animals."

So why is eliminating the rat population a priority now, even though the problem began 3,500 years ago? First, we finally have the scientific knowledge to understand these complicated ecosystems and second, we finally have the "weaponry" to adequately deal with this problem. "The weaponry I'm talking about is a poison," Stolzenburg explained. "If you feed too much to a rat, they die. This has now become widely used and is very, very effective at killing every last rat off some of these islands."

With so many birds and other wildlife species on the verge of extinction, Stolzenburg makes the goal of conservationists very, very clear: we don't want each of these islands to become another example of bad conservation management, like New Zealand.

New Zealand has lost over half its species of birds, thanks to the practice of introducing one foreign creature after another to solve their ecological problems. First, it was rabbits, then it was weasels, and it snowballed from there.

"It is one of the greatest and worst examples of what happens when you subject an innocent island to the land of mainland predators," Stolzenburg said. "It was just one bad decision after the other."

What do you think of Stolzenburg's strategy? Is eliminating the rat population the answer? Or will it just create more problems?

Rat IslandRat Island: Predators in Paradise and The World's Greatest Wildlife Rescue
by William Stolzenburg

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"Islands, making up just three per cent of Earth's landmass, harbor more than half of its endangered species. These fragile ecosystems, home to unique species that evolved in peaceful isolation, have been catastrophically disrupted by mainland predators - rats, cats, goats, and pigs ferried by humans to islands around the globe. To save these endangered islanders, academic ecologists have teamed up with professional hunters and semi-retired poachers in a radical act of conservation now bent on annihilating the invaders. Sharpshooters are sniping at goat herds from helicopters. Biological SWAT teams are blanketing mountainous isles with rat poison. Rat Island reveals a little-known and much-debated side of today's conservation movement, founded on a cruel-to-be-kind philosophy."

Read more at Bloomsbury.

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