This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Published at 12:01AM, July 4 2013 Tony Martin does not know how many he has killed. “Millions,” he says. “It has to be millions. But we just aren’t sure.” What he does know is that it is still not enough. The great rat apocalypse of South Georgia has reached its midpoint and, presenting the results at the Royal Geographical Society, Professor Martin, the greatest rodent exterminator the world has ever seen, believes the first phase has been successfully completed. From the remote and craggy King Edward point in the centre to the remoter and craggier Bird Island in the west, he and his colleagues have spread 180 tonnes of rat poison. Now just the east of the island remains. It has already been the largest pest control operation in history, all the more impressive because it is also occurring in one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet: the Antarctic. They are there, though, not because of any especial animus towards rats, but because of the birds. For millennia, a unique ecosystem developed in South Georgia. Thousands of miles from the nearest land, the thin spit 100 miles across in the South Atlantic became a vital base for tens of millions of birds. Then, in the 19th century, the ecosystem became a vital base for whalers. For a few decades, South Georgia was the greatest whaling station in the world — or, as Professor Martin calls it, “a totem of man’s irresponsible exploitation of the wondrous resources of South Georgia”. This was undoubtedly bad for whales. It was arguably worse for birds, because with the whalers’ ships came rats. “The ecosystem on South Georgia evolved in the absence of any terrestrial mammals,” says the professor. “When man came along, these furry rodents started to eat the birds — who were completely naive.” What remains, he says, is a “shadow of what was there when Captain Cook discovered it in 1775”. We know this because off the coast are a few islands that remained ratfree. On those, he says, “the density of birds is just spellbinding. You step ashore and you think you are in a different world.” The operation, which is privately funded, has so far cost £3.5 million. During South Georgia’s autumn his team have braved blizzards and flown up and down the island in helicopters to ensure every single rodent eats at least a single pellet of poison. Much of the difficulty and cost lies in the fact that they cannot be partially successful. “If we kill 99.99 per cent of the rats we’ve failed. If we leave one pregnant female, or a pair, they will soon be back to where they were.” It is also a race against time. The job can only be done in this segmented fashion because the island is divided up by glaciers, forming impenetrable barriers. With global warming, however, the glaciers are receding — some at more than a metre a day. The South Georgia Heritage Trust now needs to raise enough money to return in 2015 and finish the job before a land bridge opens at the base of the glaciers. Professor Martin also has an additional job — a somewhat ignominious irony that has faced him now he has returned home. “I’m directing this project that costs millions of pounds,” he says. “But I still can’t get rid of the rats in my back garden.”