SYDNEY - Lord Howe Island in the Pacific plans to eradicate rats in a radical programme where entire species of native wildlife would be held in captivity for their own protection and cows and chickens slaughtered or shipped to the mainland.
World Heritage-listed Lord Howe, a chunk of rock 760 kilometres northeast of Sydney, has 350 permanent residents as well as 400 or so visitors at any one time.
The plan, which draws heavily on New Zealand's experience of eliminating pests from offshore islands, aims to protect Lord Howe's unique wildlife and fragile eco-systems.
The Lord Howe Island Board, which administers the island group as part of New South Wales, also wants to safeguard its vital tourism industry as well as a thriving export trade in kentia palms.
Other exotic predators, such as feral goats, pigs and cats, have already been eliminated. Now the board has rats and mice in its sights.
Rats, accidentally introduced in 1918 when a ship ran aground, are blamed for the extinction of five bird species, and the board believes they are a threat to 13 other native birds, two reptiles, five plant species and numerous invertebrates. They also feed on kentia palm seeds.
The plan, still to be approved by the NSW and federal governments, envisages dropping 42 tonnes of poison-laced bait on Lord Howe by helicopter. The poison is considered a particular risk to the Lord Howe woodhen and pied currawong, both threatened species. So the two populations, each consisting of about 200 individuals, will be caught and placed in aviaries.
Beef cattle and chickens, meanwhile, will be removed from the island, with the board compensating owners and restocking herds and flocks once the poison has broken down, after 100 days. Dog owners will be offered muzzles for their pets, and residents will be advised to keep a watchful eye on their children.
The board's draft plan has been peer-reviewed by, among others, experts from the Department of Conservation and from Landcare Research in New Zealand.
Stephen Wills, the board's chief executive officer, said yesterday that while most islanders wanted rats eliminated, "many people, understandably, have concerns". He said: "This is one of the most beautiful places in the world, which is why it warrants such a significant and detailed programme."