Covid-19 Stalls Rescue of Albatross Chicks from Giant Mice

Gough Island in South Atlantic is home to mutant rodents that feast on some 2 million young seabirds every year.

Find more of our Covid-19 coverage.

Among the places not to be stranded when the world goes into lockdown is surely one of the planet’s most remote islands, renowned for its freakishly giant house mice that have evolved into merciless killers.

photo of albatross on gough island
Gough Island’s globally important seabird colony is at risk from giant mice, which feast on albatross chicks and may also be targeting adult birds. Photo by Chantal Steyn.

The Foreign Office has revealed details of one of the trickiest rescues it has had to mount because of the coronavirus pandemic, one involving a 12-day sail across the Atlantic and a 4,000 mile flight in an RAF A400 transport aircraft.

A team of 12 conservationists from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) arrived on Gough Island in the south Atlantic in February to begin work on an important, if gruesome, environmental project.

Gough Island, which has one of the most important seabird colonies in the world, is the stage for what has been described as “one of nature’s greatest horror shows.”

Mice from the boats of seal hunters managed to get on to the island 150 years ago and have somehow evolved to two and even three times the size of an ordinary British house mouse. Every year the mutant mice feast from the nests on live seabird chicks, killing about 2 million of them.

It is a catastrophe that is pushing one of the world’s most threatened species, the Tristan albatross, towards extinction. The RSPB said there was also evidence the mutant mice had begun targeting live adult birds.

All of which made the yearlong mission to rid the island of mice of huge importance.

When the coronavirus struck not all the team had arrived so they were left with few options but to return home, a spokesperson for the RSPB said. “We would not have been able to complete the project because we didn’t have everyone we needed there.”

However getting back was easier said than done, with countries around the world imposing travel restrictions. Gough Island, around the size of Guernsey, is part of the British overseas territory of Tristan da Cunha and approximately 1,700 miles from Cape Town.

Kate Lawrence, a member of the team and now back home in New Zealand, said colleagues in the UK worked on an extraction plan that seemed to change daily. “Traveling via Cape Town, the Falkland Islands, Saint Helena and Ascension Island were all possibilities at some point.”

The best option was a 1,969 nautical miles journey on the team’s expedition yacht through rough seas to Ascension. Lawrence 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.”

Once on Ascension, home to just 800 people, the group had to wait five days for the next RAF flight back to the UK.

Tristan da Cunha’s administrator, Fiona Kilpatrick, said it was a complex operation which had involved staff from three UK overseas territories as well as teams in South Africa, Vienna and London.

“Their challenging journey showed how carefully this needed to be planned and how much coordination and diplomacy was required to get them home. We hope to welcome them back soon.”

All of the group are now safely home. The RSPB, meanwhile, is hoping to try once more in its mission to exterminate the giant mice in 2021, if conditions allow and finance can be raised.

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