COVID-19 Stranded Scientists Trying to Save Endangered Birds From Killer Mice

Conservationists from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had to take a wild, long route home to the United Kingdom

Tristan albatross
Invasive mice kill more than 2 million chicks on Gough Island each year, including the chicks of the critically endangered Tristan albatross, pictured here Photo via the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

An invasive species of house mice are gnawing on the eggs and chicks of nesting seabirds on Gough Island, a remote breeding island in the south Atlantic. The mice—about 50 percent larger than normal house mice—pose an existential threat to many of the island’s bird species, including the critically endangered Tristan albatross, Jason Daley reported for Smithsonian magazine last year.

In February, a conservation team from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) traveled to the Island with a plan: kill the mice, save the birds. However, their conservation plans collapsed when the COVID-19 pandemic escalated in mid-March, according to a United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office statement.

As nearby countries began ramping up travel restrictions, officials had to scramble to figure out how to get the 12-person team off the remote island, Mark Brown reports for the Guardian. Gough Island, part of the British Overseas Territory Tristan da Cunha, is located in the South Atlantic Ocean about 1,750 miles west of South Africa and 2,000 miles east of South America. The island is uninhabited except for a weather station, Amy Woodyatt reports for CNN.

A tragedy is unfolding in paradise

“We knew the team back in the UK were working on a plan, and they communicated to us regularly, though the information and plan seemed to change almost on a daily basis due to the ever-changing border closures and travel restrictions around the world,” Kate Lawrence, one of the RSPB members stuck on Gough Island, says in the statement. “Travelling via Cape Town, the Falkland Islands, St. Helena and Ascension Island were all possibilities at some point.”

Ultimately, the team sailed on a yacht through rough seas for 12 days—crossing 1969 nautical miles—to Ascension Island, an island home to about 800 people. Once on Ascension Island, they waited five days before boarding a Royal Air Force transport aircraft that flew them the 4,000 miles back to the U.K., per the Guardian.

“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,” continues Lawrence.

According to the BBC, the RSPB team included conservationists from South Africa, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Greece. “It was a complex operation involving staff from three UK Overseas Territories, as well as our teams in South Africa, Vienna and London, to ensure this team, doing such important work in such an isolated location, could make it back to the UK safely,” says Fiona Kilpatrick, Tristan da Cunha Administrator, in a statement.

Gough Island, a designated World Heritage Site, hosts about 8 million breeding seabirds from 24 different species, per Smithsonian. In addition to the Tristan albatross, the island is also an important breeding site for the Sooty and Atlantic yellow-nosed albatrosses, per the RSPB’s website.

According to Smithsonian, birds evolved on the island in the absence of nest predators, leaving them defenseless against the invasive mice, which were likely introduced by humans in the 19th century. Feasting on eggs, chicks and sometimes adult birds, the island mice have evolved over the century to grow much larger than typical house mice—and more deadly. One study published in 2018 found that the mice kill 2 million chicks on Gough every year.

George Dvorsky for Gizmodo reports that the RSPB team had planned to combat the mutant mice by dropping cereal pellets containing rodenticide.

“The loss of another season’s chicks to mouse predation is devastating to us all,” the RSPB wrote in a statement on its website. “We remain committed to our mission to restore Gough as a seabird paradise, and our intention is to return in 2021.”

Conservationists traveling
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, conservationists were forced to leave Gough Island and return to the U.K. Photo via the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

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