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The helicopter pilots defeating the Bomb Islands for the invasion of rats



Extreme Field Work A series on how science is carried out from the bottom of the ocean to volcanic eruptions in the craziest and wildest environments on earth.

Most humans would understandably be nervous if they had to fly a helicopter over a sub-Antarctic island and complete a multimillion dollar protection mission. But not Peter Garden.

"I've never been nervous ̵

1; I enjoy it," he told Earther. "This has never been a job for me."

The responsibility everyone else would definitely call a "job" is quite concrete: lure-laying over remote islands infested with invasive rodents that were often inadvertently imported centuries ago by European whalers and whales sailors. The technique of baiting can effectively eliminate mice and rats that have caused native and endemic species to decay. However, if Garden or its fellow pilots miss even a small piece of land, some rodents will survive to repopulate the island, and the mission will be a failure.

Dozens of Governments and Environmental Groups Around the World Have Encouraged Bait Release teams to remove rodents from the islands along the European, Australian and North American coasts, as well as some areas in the middle of the ocean. Any effort requires years of planning, but if rodents can be removed from this island, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and home to rare and extraordinary ecosystems, this is well worth it.

Mission staff load lures into helicopter buckets on Macquarie Island halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica.
Photo: Keith Springer

Only a few pilots have the necessary know-how, including Garden, which has done so 27 baits have fallen since conservationists attempted their strategy for the first time a few decades ago. Over the years, he and his project coordinators have tried to think through all the details of a potential project, but the teams still find surprises in every new ecosystem they visit.

"The excitement of eradicating is that you do it once, do it right and leave the island to your equipment, the conservation gains are limited in the long run," said Keith Springer, a freelance pest control project manager, to Springer.

has worked with Garden on several decoys on behalf of government agencies such as the New Zealand Department of Conservation and groups such as the Royal Society for the Bird of Birds. Drops are asking for a large amount in advance – the price of Antarctic Macquarie Island, for example, was $ 14 million – but, according to the steward, steward agencies have spent more than rodent mating on islands for decades. When left alone, mice and rats can chew through invertebrates and plant populations. Rodents can even attack live birds. Some of their prey, such as the Hawaiian kāma'o, are extinct, while others, such as the Chilean Masafuera rayadito, are partially endangered by rats.

Mission staff load bait in helicopter bucket on South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic.
Photo: Keith Springer

"In public, nobody says anything about the mistakes," said Springer An albatross chick loses its head in the feeling of indignation and injustice.

As soon as a government asks for help, Springer calls on the pilots. Garden will probably answer. The native New Zealander developed his helicopter skills and spread pesticides and fertilizers in the hilly terrain of his country. He has been flying to the shelter since the 1980s when he helped the New Zealand Wildlife Service rescue the last kākāpō, a rare species of bird, from Stewart Island, the southernmost part of the country. During the attempt to relocate the bird, the government found that all potential rabbits were overrun with rodents, Garden said.

Many of these potential habitats were uninhabited and difficult to reach on foot to spread bait. However, it would soon be possible to eliminate invasive rodents in other ways. In the 1990s, hyper-accurate GPS tracking debuted, guiding pilots on perfect airlines over otherwise unmanageable terrain and ensuring every square foot of rodent bait is hit. In 1998, Garden used one of these trackers to make Codfish Island, northwest of Stewart Island, a suitable place for kākāpō.

Since he has been doing this for so long, Garden is particularly involved in planning a mission. For example, he could meet with biologists or park guards months before the fall of a lure on an island to test its impact on native wildlife. If non-target species, such as seagulls, can cope with accidental bait casualties, these losses could be beneficial to the overall goal, Springer said. However, if the island hosts species that can not sustain losses – such as the endemic Woodhens and Currawong crows on the soon to be lured island of Lord Howe east of Australia – the conservationists lead the animals into pens until all the bait has disappeared.

The Antarctic islands have other concerns, such as Macquarie, where there are king penguins. Roaring airplanes can cause the birds to stomp and trample one another, so pilots on those missions pre-flight overflights to find a height the animals will tolerate.

After these trials comes the main event. One or two dozen support staff, from engineers to IT specialists to baitwheel loaders, may be on an island to make a drop successful, but once Garden takes off, he's responsible for everything. A lever switch in his cockpit opens a gate in the bait container swinging underneath. When the helicopter is held at a constant speed and altitude – typically 55 miles per hour and 150 feet above the ground – Garden regularly pricks its head to make sure the pellets fall. If multitasking is not enough, he also looks for birds. For example, the albatross and giant petrels, which soar above Gough Island in the South Atlantic, do not dispense with helicopters, and if a pilot hits one of those mighty birds, according to Springer, the damage can be taken out of service.

Mission Officers Load Lure into Helicopter Buckets on Macquarie Island, halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica.
Photo: Keith Springer

The other missionary threat is the weather. Winds on islands with a latitude of 40 degrees can easily beat over 100 miles per hour, causing baits to be unpredictably dispersed or to break rotor blades of the helicopter. Crews often wait for weeks for bad weather, and Garden will sometimes sleep in his helicopter if tents can not provide enough shelter.

If everything goes according to plan and sometimes the crew I can not respond, Garden said. These cases require between three years and a decade of planning, and employees spend months abandoning their families. And in a few weeks it's done. "Everyone is standing there looking at each other and saying," What's next? "Garden said."

The answer is, they're waiting.If one project fails, it may take two years for all the remaining rodents to be repopulated.If none is found at this time, the mission is considered a success Garden, the ecosystem recovery phase, loves Garden the most, and although he seldom returns to the islands he helped restore, he and the crew keep up with the surprising changes observed by biologists following a campaign to remove invasive mammals Including rats, Campbell Island's New Zealand territory, Megaherbs, began to sprout oversized, leafy plants with brightly colored flowers called "the equivalent of the Subantarctic jungle." On the Palmyra Atoll, all mosquitoes disappeared after bait wastes a year 2011 – it seems that the bloodsuckers were only for the rodents on the Pacific Island Gardens recent crash on Desecheo Island, Puerto Rico, helped the island regain its role as nesting ground for seabirds in 2016. "You can not quantify things like that when starting a project," said Garden.

Mission personnel load bait into helicopter buckets on Macquarie Island halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica.
Photo: Keith Springer

Although he knows the job will not please everyone, Garden has loved every mission he has been to "[aerial eradication efforts] unfortunately came at the end of my aviation career, so I'm very sad that I come at the time when I can no longer fly, "he said. "It was the highlight of my aviation career to do something positive for the environment."

That means he and his older pilots are looking for replacements. People who do not have to spend hours in the cockpit. "These are jobs that are suitable for half-retired pilots who have the time, experience, and nothing to prove," continued Garden.

So, if another pilot is in this particular career phase, now is the time to give Garden a call.

Leslie Nemo is a freelance environmental reporter based in New York.


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