Henderson Island Restoration Programme
Situated over 3,000 miles from the nearest continent, Henderson Island (Pitcairn Group, UK Overseas Territory) is one of the most remote islands on the planet, and the world's last large limestone island still in a near-pristine condition.
Uninhabited, and with almost no human influence at all, this remote paradise is home to over 55 species found nowhere else on earth, including four unique land-birds: the Henderson fruit-dove, Henderson lorikeet, Henderson rail and Henderson reed-warbler. The island, a global stronghold of the gadfly petrel group, is also the only known breeding site of the endangered Henderson petrel - amongst the most truly oceanic of all birds.
The island's beaches, meanwhile, provide crucial nesting habitat for endangered marine turtles. Combine this with nine plant species, eight species of snail and dozens of invertebrates all endemic to this island, and it is clear that Henderson is one of the crown jewels of UK biodiversity. Indeed, it is a designated World Heritage Site, making it one of the planet's greatest natural assets.
Despite being remote and uninhabited, Henderson’s unique biodiversity is currently under threat due to the presence of introduced Pacific rats. Evidence from fieldwork has shown that 95% of petrel chicks are killed within just one week of hatching (over 25,000 chicks a year). Since petrels lay only one egg in a clutch, this level of predation is simply unsustainable.
Seabird numbers have dropped from an estimated 5 million pairs before rats arrived to just 40,000 pairs today, and the Henderson petrel is being driven towards extinction. The rats are also likely to be reducing populations of marine turtles and other wildlife on Henderson, and suppressing the vulnerable populations of Henderson fruit-dove, lorikeet and rail.
During August – September 2011, the RSPB, in conjunction with the Pitcairn Islands Government, undertook a ground-breaking operation to restore Henderson Island. At 43km², Henderson was the largest tropical or sub-tropical island ever to be subject to a rat eradication operation, and the third largest island yet treated in the world (at that time). The project was also the first time an aerial eradication operation had been conducted from the deck of a ship, and saw Henderson rails successfully bred in captivity for the first time.
However, seven months after the 2011 eradication operation took place, a monitoring expedition confirmed that rats are unfortunately still present on Henderson Island. There is more work to do to save Henderson's unique wildlife.
- Prevent the extinction of the Henderson petrel (Endangered)
- Boost populations of the four endemic landbird species (all Vulnerable)
- Increase populations of the estimated 30+ endemic invertebrate species
- Allow the recovery of natural flora
- Dramatically boost seabird numbers on Henderson. Research suggests populations could increase by up to hundred-fold, creating a veritable haven for biodiversity in the middle of the Pacific.
- Involve the Pitcairn Islanders and other key groups in saving this World Heritage Site.
Key dates so far
- January 2008: A feasibility study commissioned by the RSPB found that eradicating rats from Henderson Island was technically feasible, though highlighted two outstanding questions which would need to be resolved before any eradication operation could proceed.
- August-September 2009: A field expedition to Henderson, part of the OTEP-funded project 'Preparing for rat eradication on Henderson Island World Heritage Site', resolved all outstanding issues and gave the green light for an eradication project to proceed.
- July-November 2011: Two field teams implemented a rodent eradication project on Henderson Island. At 43km2, Henderson is the largest tropical or sub-tropical island ever targeted for a rat eradication.
- March 2012: National Geographic expedition to Henderson Island films a live rat on Henderson Island. The RSPB responded.
- May 2012: RSPB mounted a rapid response survey and confirms that rats are still present on the island.
- November 2012: We implement three independent reviews of the eradication operation while at the same time conduct a more detailed survey of Henderson birds and the rebounding rat population.
- July - August 2012: A nine week research expedition to Henderson Island, funded by the Darwin Initiative, identifies that rats are not yet back to pre-eradication levels but this will not last too much longer. The operation may have failed but for a brief period, sea and land bird fledgling success would have seen significant improvements.
Work planned or underway
The RSPB is committed to working to save the Henderson petrel from extinction. Eradicating rats from Henderson Is-land is still the best hope for this and other endemic species and to restore this isolated tropical island for all of its nature. The Henderson Island operation was ground-breaking in many aspects, and we are committed to continuing our pioneering efforts.
Mike Clarke, Chief Executive of the RSPB ‘While everyone involved in the first attempt was bitterly disappointed to learn that our efforts to eradicate rats from the island failed, we are still committed to working with the Pitcairn community to restore Henderson Island World Heritage Site and if possible, eradicate rats from the island’.
‘We are still very optimistic we can eradicate rats from Henderson and give the Henderson petrel back its home. However, we are not leaving this to chance. As with the first attempt, our approach will have a firm basis in science. There are a number of key questions out-standing, which we will investigate further. Our team will ensure that we have everything in place before going ahead with a second attempt.’
To achieve what our Chief Executive has set out, the RSPB will embark on a six month research expedition to Henderson Island from May to November 2015. This is a major undertaking that will involve two teams of eight people investigating rat ecology and aiming to identify what it will take to successfully eradicate rats and restore this once pristine island.
We need to raise at least £230,000 before this expedition can proceed. This will pay for the boat required to install the teams, the food and supplies that they will have to bring with them, equipment, research staff and all other costs associated with mounting an expedition on one of the world's most remote and isolated islands. Click here to find out more about how you can support the expedition.
Species affected (not UK birds)
Henderson petrel, herald petrel, Murphy's petrel, Kermadec petrel, Henderson fruit-dove, Henderson lorikeet, Henderson rail, Henderson reed-warbler, fairy tern, masked booby, red-footed booby, great frigatebird, red-tailed tropicbird, brown noddy, black noddy, bristle-thighed curlew, wandering tattler.
The endemic Henderson Lorikeet
Bristle-thighed Curlew, Henderson Island
Murphy's Petrels above Henderson Island
The endangered Henderson Petrel is only known to breed on this one island
Rat and petrel, Henderson Island
Henderson Island FAQs
Frequently asked questions regarding the Henderson Island Restoration Project.
Date: 11 November 2010
Who to contact
Programme Manager - Globally Threatened Species
The RSPB works in partnership with the Pitcairn Island Community, for whose support we are extremely grateful. We also work with the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), BirdLife International, the Royal Forest & Bird Protection Society of New Zealand, Island Conservation and Dr. Michael Brooke at the University of Cambridge.
The Henderson Island Restoration project can only be successful if sufficient funding is found. If you would like to help us raise the required funds to protect and restore Henderson's unique biodiversity, you can donate using our online form or by sending a donation by post to David Agombar, RSPB, The Lodge, Sandy Bedfordshire, SG19 2DL. UK taxpayers are kindly asked to Gift Aid your donation. This will add an additional 20% to the value at no cost to you. For further information please contact David Agombar (firstname.lastname@example.org) .
The RSPB is very grateful for all funding received to support this important programme. Due to the complex nature of the Henderson Island Restoration Programme, funding has come from many sources including private individuals. Organisations that have supported the programme to date are:
• The Darwin Initiative;
• Overseas Territories Environment Programme (OTEP);
• David & Lucile Packard Foundation;
• UK Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra);
• Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF);
• BBC Wildlife Fund;
• Zegrahm Expeditions; and
• The New Zealand Society and Projects Abroad.