The Massive Project to Wipe Out 180 Million Galapagos Island Rats

Back in the 17th century, Norway and black rats were introduced to the Galapagos Islands by whalers and buccaneers. Since that time they have become an absolute menace, by feasting on the eggs and hatchlings of the islands' native species. But now, in a $1.8 million project to preserve this precious ecosystem, the 180 million strong rat population is set to be completely destroyed.

And indeed, the situation is serious.

The rats have endangered many of the island's unique species, including giant tortoises, lava lizards, snakes, and hawks. They've also depleted many of the plants on which the native species feed. It's gotten so bad that the rat infestation has now reached one per square foot (about 10 per square meter) on the main island, Pinzon.

The Massive Project to Wipe Out 180 Million Galapagos Island Rats

But now, as the Associated Press is reporting, a two-phase project has been devised by Nature Conservancy that will see all invasive rodents eliminated by 2020. The first phase of the project began back in January 2011, when rats were culled on Rabida island and a dozen other inlets. Previous efforts had already removed goats, cats, burros and pigs from the islands.

For the second phase, which begins today (November 15), helicopters will start to drop nearly 22 tons of a specially designed rat poison bait on the island. The poison, which was developed by Bell Laboratories in the U.S., are only appealing to rats, and the blue cubes dissolve in about a week. Moreover, so as to not create toxic rat carcases, the poison will cause the dead rats to dry up and disintegrate in less than eight days.

But just to be safe, the conservationists have trapped and removed 34 hawks from the region to prevent them from feasting on the poisoned rats (they'll be released in early January). And on Plaza Sur, over 40 iguanas were also captured temporarily for their protection.

The project is being funded by the national park and nonprofit conservation groups including Island Conservation.

Top: Heiko Kiera/Shutterstock. Inset image: AP Photos/ Dolores Ochoa.