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Fiji joins rat race

New Zealand experience bought in?

A team of specialist consultants from New Zealand has given the green light to a BirdLife Fiji Programme project to eradicate rats on Vatuira Island, which holds internationally important seabird colonies and has been identified as an Important Bird Area.

This means that two rat eradication programmes will be carried in Fiji this year: the other is the removal of rats on Viwa Island, Tailevu, led by Joape Kuruyawa and Dr Craig Morley from the University of the South Pacific (USP). Rats are a serious threat to the native birds and wildlife of Fiji and other Pacific islands. Three species of rat have been introduced to Fiji: Pacific rats arrived thousands of years ago when the first Fijians arrived, with European black and brown rats more recently. All have devastating impacts on biodiversity and have led to the extinction of innumerable species in the Pacific, along with economic and health problems caused by damage to crops and the spread of diseases."The island was infested with Pacific rats and these were clearly having an impact on the birds, eating eggs and chicks." Said Vilikesa Masibalavu, BirdLife - Fiji Co-ordinator “We visited the huge seabird colonies on Vatuira about two years ago,” he explained “However the island was infested with Pacific rats and these were clearly having an impact on the birds: eating eggs and chicks. The land owners were aware of the problem and we all really wanted to work together to do something about this.”

This tiny island off the north coast of Viti Levu has at least eight species of nesting seabird including Red-footed Boobies Sula sula, Great Crested-terns Sterna bergii, Black-naped Terns Sterna sumatrana and up to 30,000 pairs of Black Noddies Anous minutus.“Rat eradication, may sound a bit grizzly, but it is simple and safe operation and the rats die quietly within a few days,” explained Rob Chappell, specialist consultant who visited both Viwa and Vatuira islands last week. “If all goes to plan, Fiji will remove rats off the two islands in one month. Hopefully these will be the first of many to be de-ratted.”

The rat eradication programme on Viwa will be considerably more complex than the operation undertaken on Vatuira due to the size of the island (60 ha), the presence of people, and because an endangered ground frog is present. However, the people of Viwa are right behind the project because it will help conserve the natural biodiversity of their island, as well as hopefully leading to an improvement in their own health and economic status.Craig Morley, lecturer at USP and Project Manger for Viwa commented, “Eradication hasn’t been done before in Fiji so there is a bit of friendly rivalry between the teams to do the first one. The joke is it's a rat race!” He went on to explain, “The University and BirdLife are working closely together, sharing consultants and materials and also exchanging staff so that everyone gets the best learning experience.”

Rob Chappell added, “The idea behind these projects is to use them as demonstration projects to prove that rats can be eradicated off tropical Pacific islands and to train local people in the techniques of removing rats so we can achieve similar results on other suitable islands.”

The BirdLife International project on Vatuira Project and the University of the South Pacific (USP) Project on Viwa have both been funded the Critical Ecosystems Partnership (CEPF), with technical support from the Pacific Invasive Initiative (PII) based at Auckland University in New Zealand.

4th July 2014