Biblical pest control

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 December, 2006, 12:00am

One of the most peaceful and unusual holiday destinations Sydneysiders could head to this Christmas is Lord Howe Island. Administratively part of New South Wales, it lies 700km northeast of Sydney, a scrap of land adrift in the South Pacific.

If you could sit down and design the perfect sub-tropical escape, this would be it. Just 11km long and a couple of kilometres wide, boomerang-shaped Lord Howe is dominated by two rugged peaks, their sheer cliffs and jungle-clad summits reminiscent of Tahiti.

It has changed little since its discovery by the Royal Navy in 1788: there are large swathes of rainforest, a pristine, reef-enclosed lagoon, empty beaches and no high-rise buildings.

But there is a serpent in paradise - or rather, a rodent. In 1918, a ship was wrecked after striking an uncharted rock off the island. Its cargo was unloaded onto a beach, and black rats escaped into the forest. The rats devastated the endemic wildlife, preying on the eggs and fledglings of birds - rare elsewhere in the world - many of which nested on the ground.

Within a few years, five bird species became extinct. The rats remain a problem to this day.

Now there is a highly ambitious plan to wipe out the entire population. It's called the 'Noah option', and would involve trapping as many native animals, reptiles and amphibians as possible and placing them in enclosures and cages - a modern-day Noah's Ark.

Most of the island's birds are migratory, so the exercise would be carried out after they left the island on their annual exodus. Poison pellets would then be dropped by aircraft, covering the entire island and hopefully killing off all the rats.

The operation would probably be carried out by experts from New Zealand's department of conservation, who are world leaders in pest control. Wildlife rangers would have to be 100 per cent sure that every last rodent had been killed before releasing the captive animals.

'If we were successful, Lord Howe would become the largest inhabited island in the world to get rid of rats,' said Ian Hutton, a wildlife guide and authority on the island's ecology. 'We look forward to the day when it happens.' There's no timetable for the eradication programme, but Mr Hutton hopes it can be done in the next few years.

Among the animals that could then be reintroduced to Lord Howe is a giant stick insect, which was recently found to have survived on a rat-free, rocky outcrop called Ball's Pyramid. Nicknamed the 'walking sausage' or 'land lobster', it's one of the biggest and rarest bugs in the world.

Lord Howe has managed to get rid of three introduced species in the last century - pigs, goats and feral cats. The black rat is smaller and more elusive, but wiping it out would give this idyllic island an even greater claim to uniqueness.