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How a Trio of Terriers Helped Rid a Remote Island of the Rats That Were Destroying It

By Matthew Phenix

May 22, 2018

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Will, one of three rat-detection dogs brought to South Georgia last November

Photo by Oli Prince / South Georgia Heritage Trust

Will, one of three rat-detection dogs brought to South Georgia last November

On South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic, a huge rodent-eradication effort has been declared a success, thanks in part to the efforts of three canine crusaders.

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The dogs came last. Three talented canine sniffers and their handlers, Miriam Ritchie and Jane Tansell, landed on South Georgia last November and spent half a year hiking the remote Atlantic island, traversing some 1,500 miles in a search for rats. This was the final and most important phase of a decade-long, $13 million effort, spearheaded by a Scottish nonprofit, the South Georgia Heritage Trust, and its U.S.-based counterpart, Friends of South Georgia Island, to rid this British territory, which lies about 960 miles east of the Falklands, of its invasive rodent population. 

South Georgia, discovered and named in 1775 by Captain James Cook, is home to half of the world’s elephant seals and fully 98 percent of the world’s Antarctic fur seals. There are four species of penguin here, as well, including some 450,000 breeding pairs of king penguins, and an important population of flying seabirds. When Shackleton arrived, the island teemed with feathered inhabitants. Then the rodents came.

Brown rats reached the island in the late 1700s, stowaways aboard whaling and sealing boats. And South Georgia, despite its sub-Antarctic climate, proved to be a ratty Shangri-La: The rodents feasted on the plentiful eggs and chicks of ground-nesting seabirds and quickly thinned flocks of albatross, petrel, tern, and skua. They also pushed two unique species—a songbird called the South Georgia pipit and a duck called the South Georgia pintail—to the edge of extinction.

Rat-sniffer Wai mingles with the locals.
After two years of planning, South Georgia Heritage Trust helicopters dropped some 330 tons of rat poison on the island during three expeditions between 2011 and 2015—visits timed to avoid the penguins’ breeding season. Then, in November 2017, a team arrived to set up several hundred bait-loaded tracking tubes that would reveal the footprints of rats that passed through, and plant thousands of wooden stakes tagged with a chew cards laced with tasty vegetable oil or peanut butter. If the rats were still here, their appetite would give them away.

It was around this time that the dogs—a trio of terriers named Will, Wai, and Ahu—started their work. Off-leash and wearing wire basket muzzles to protect themselves and any wildlife they might encounter, the highly trained rat-sniffers zigzagged the 103-mile-long island. They explored craggy highlands and grassy lowlands, poked around derelict whaling camps, and mingled with seals and penguins. The terrain of South Georgia is anything but easy, and Team Rat’s work was arduous. In six months, the dogs climbed the equivalent of 13 Mount Everests; their handlers had it marginally easier, scaling only eight Everests. 

To the disappointment of no one, save the dogs themselves, they found nothing. And this month, South Georgia was at last declared rat-free and the world’s biggest rodent-eradication project was proclaimed a success.

At 247,000 acres, South Georgia—whose largest settlement, Grytviken (pop. 20), is a popular stop for Antarctica-bound cruise ships—is eight times larger than the previous record-holder for rodent extermination, Macquarie Island in Australia.
Ahu gets a cuddle from handler Miriam Ritchie.
Next: How to Visit Antarctica for Just One Day

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