Their plan was to spend a year on Gough Island – a UK Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic – protecting defenceless seabirds from being attacked by invasive non-native mice. But the mission to restore Gough Island as a seabird paradise will now have to wait until 2021, as the coronavirus pandemic saw the team of 12 from the RSPB embark on a marathon 12-day voyage and RAF military flight back to the UK.
The conservationists arrived at the World Heritage Site, around 1,700 miles west of Cape Town, in late February. Every year on the island, the invasive mice eat chicks alive and kill over 2 million birds, with the Tristan albatross facing extinction and 11 bird species suffering.
But when the coronavirus outbreak escalated in March, the team knew that the only option was to postpone the mission and return home. The next dilemma was how to find a safe route home, from one of the world’s most remote islands, part of the British Overseas Territory Tristan da Cunha. With borders closing and travel restrictions increasing, the RSPB formulated a plan with the UK Foreign Office to leave the island and head home.
The team included four Britons, several South Africans and others from Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Greece.
Assessing routes against travel times, border closures and weather patterns, a final decision was made to sail for 12 days by yacht to Ascension Island, across rough seas for 1,969 nautical miles.
Kate Lawrence, one of the RSPB team, said “Sailing in that boat for 12 days, looking at the endless blue ocean around me, made the world feel quite big, in contrast to the previous ease of air travel and the rapid spread of COVID-19, which makes the world seem so small.”
When the group reached Ascension, they received help from the RAF Base Commander to board the next available RAF flight, arriving to the island five days later to deliver essential supplies, taking them to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.
Andrew Callender, programme executive of the RSPB Gough Project and who is based in the UK, said the team had been making "tremendous progress" on the restoration scheme before it had to be postponed, which came as "quite a blow" to those involved.
The loss of another season’s chicks to mouse predation is devastating to us all. We remain committed to our mission to restore Gough as a seabird paradise, and our intention is to return in 2021.
To give us the best possible chance of success in 2021, please consider making a donation to our Gough Island Appeal. Your help today can help prevent an extinction emergency for the Tristan albatross.