South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are a long way from the daily consciousness of most UK citizens, but this Overseas Territory in the far south of the Atlantic is home to a remarkable project that aims to restore the populations of our birds on the islands – they may be thousands of miles away, but species such as the South Georgia pipit, the South Georgia pintail, and various albatross, petrels and other seabirds are part of the UK's biodiversity!
South Georgia pintail with chicks (Tony Martin)
The South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) has an ambitious project – to eradicate rats from the island. Yes rats, again. You may be thinking that this kind of extermination project is commonplace now in the conservation world, and you'd be right – but boy, this one is an eye opener! South Georgia is far too big for any success – over 104 miles long, and between 1 and 23 miles wide – unless you have a cunning plan (Henderson Island, location of the RSPB's eradication work last year, is about 6 by 3 miles).
Aerial view of South Georgia (Tony Martin)
Much of the island is covered in snow and ice, and in practical terms for rats, this turns one large island into many smaller habitable areas separated from each other by impassable glaciers and ice flows. So, eradicate from each area in turn! Simple really – at least on paper. However, the practicalities of it are immense, from getting people and kit to the island, flying helicopters up sheer cliffs to deliver bait, dealing with South Atlantic weather, ensuring that rats not birds are poisoned…the list is long! And warming conditions are melting the glaciers, so time is running out.
Delivering bait requires precision flying (Tony Martin)
Phase 1 was completed last year – the first areas were baited and processes refined – and as summer in the southern hemisphere has come around, the signs are good. The team is quietly confident as no rat activity has been seen for ten months in the baited areas and, a sure sign of the removal of predators, baby pintails were in abundance - an amazing result that deserves at least a sip or two of bubbly!
Professor Tony Martin and the Habitat Restoration team have all our best wishes for success with the next phases. We'll bring you updates here, but if you would like to follow the project more closely and marvel at the logistics and practicalities of working on South Georgia, sign up for the newsletters on the SGHT webpage.
By Toby Galligan, Conservation Scientist
Veterinary diclofenac is banned in India, but 30 ml vials (ideal for treating cattle) are still available under the guise of human use only. In other words, manufacturers are circumventing the ban. While trained veterinarians understand the vulture-diclofenac problem, many untrained veterinarians and pharmacists do not; and so diclofenac contamination of vulture food continues.
For the three Critically Endangered Gyps vultures in South Asia, we need to help protect them in their natural environment ('in situ conservation management'), and work with captive birds ('ex situ conservation management'). Vulture Conservation Breeding Centres represent ex situ conservation action, while Provisional Vulture Safe Zones (PVSZs) represent in situ conservation action. There are four PVSZs currently supported by RSPB: three in northern India and one in southern Nepal. Each is centred on a remnant population of Gyps vulture. Conservation action in the form of advocacy, awareness raising and monitoring is undertaken by local organisations. Ultimately, through their hard work, the four PVSZ will expand and merge, creating one complete Vulture Safe Zone of approximately 120,000 km2 in size.
Ananya and I teamed up with BNHS Advocacy Officer Janki Teli and Conservation Scientist Mandar Kulkarni to tour the three PVSZs in India. We found diversity in the way each PVSZ team approaches advocacy and awareness raising. Here is a sample of this diversity. In the state of Uttarakhand, a PVSZ exists alongside the Corbett Tiger Reserve. Here Sumantha Ghosh and the Mahseer Conservancy tackle the vulture-diclofenac problem at the grass-roots. Mr Ghosh gains community support by highlighting the ecological, economical and cultural values of vultures. These values are apparent to the villagers of Ringora, where wildlife-watchers come to see the nesting white-backed vultures and contribute to the local economy at home-stays, gift shops and food outlets.
"Plugging vultures" at the World Waterfowl Day count (left to right: Janki, Sumantha Ghosh, the Deputy Forest Officer, Dr Sakat Bodala)
The PVSZ in the state of Uttar Pradesh encompasses the Dudwa National Park and Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary. There are two teams here – Tarai Nature lead by Dr V. P. Singh, and the Katerniaghat Foundation led by Suresh Chaudhari. Dr Singh is a senior academic at a local university and an expert on northern Indian ecosystems. He has strong connections within the Forestry Department, Veterinarian Association and law enforcement. His discussions with the police chief of Kheri district have resulted in the first district to enforce the diclofenac ban.
On the edge of Dudhwa National park (left to right: Mandar, Dr Jaswant Singh Kaliar, Dr V P Singh and me)
Mr Chaudhari is one of the founding members of the Katernaighat foundation. Their goal is to convert the wildlife sanctuary into a national park. The conversion would benefit the local Gyps vultures directly, as cattle would be removed from the core area and government veterinarians would control animal health care in the park’s buffer zone; both actions thereby reducing he potential for diclofenac contamination of vulture food.
Within the Katernaighat Wildlife Sanctuary (left to right: me, Janki, Ananya, Mandar and Suresh)
In the state of Jharkhand, Satya Prakash and the Neo Human Foundation have formed a PVSZ encompassing the vultures of the town of Hazaribagh. Ingeniously, Mr Prakash advocated vulture conservation to the Drug Controller of Hazaribagh District and asked him to write and distribute a letter to all pharmacies asking them to account for their sales of diclofenac. This was enough to stop pharmacies in the district selling diclofenac in all its forms (don’t worry there are alternatives like Meloxicam that are better for cattle, humans and vultures alike). The Hazaribagh district is therefore the first district in India to be diclofenac-free. Mr Prakash plans to replicate this strategy throughout his PVSZ. We are keen to see this strategy replicated throughout India.
At the District Commissioner’s house (left to right: me, Ananya, Satya Prakash, Dr Manish Ranjan [the DC], and Mandar)
With thanks to Save Our Species for their valuable sponsorship, which helps us carry out this essential work. For more information on the SAVE consortium and its work, visit www.save-vultures.org/
Someone says "ibis" and you think of a sleek bird, possibly startling white or shocking orange…something way up there on the bird beauty scale. And then there's the bald ibis. A somewhat greasy black, with a naked face that looks like it's had a few too many years of hard drinking, and a shocking hairdo. A bird it might be harder to love – but love them we do. Once you get to know them, they are stunning in their own way.I first met the bald ibis when I was working at the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, where there is a successful captive breeding programme. Noisy and smelly in their colony, but curious and full of character – this species was almost lost for good a few decades ago. The RSPB has been a key player in the projects on the ground in Morocco, where most of the birds live, and Dr Chris Bowden has worked with them for so long I swear he is beginning to look a little ibis-like! Along with SEO, our Spanish BirdLife Partner, prospects are good for this western population.
However, only a handful of birds survive at the other end of the ibis's former range in the Middle East/north-east Africa. If these are lost, the species does not go extinct, but the implications are severe – there will be no individuals left who know the migration routes, where to find food and water.
Some of the remaining birds are about to leave Ethiopia on their trek north – and these have satellite transmitters so we can follow their journey. The RSPB has a web page dedicated to this project and you can see how the birds are faring there, along with the latest blog updates from the experts.Go on, fall in love with the northern bald ibis – they need all the friends they can get!