On May 18, 2015, “as the light was fading at the end of a bitterly cold day,” zoologist Tony Martin dropped his last rat bait pellet onto a peninsula at the western tip of an island near the South Pole.
“We had finished. We had really finished,” Martin wrote in his final transmission.
It was the end of an arduous four-year effort to save the endangered seabirds on South Georgia island. Martin’s 25-man team, led by the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT), had undertaken the largest rat eradication in history, defending indigenous creatures from their ravenous enemies.
The rats had been introduced to the island by early explorers and hunters more than 200 years ago. And they had been preying on the eggs and chicks of nesting seabirds ever since. In fact, until Martin and his team intervened, the rats had wiped out more than 90% of South Georgia’s seabird populations.
Almost Didn’t Happen
But this is a success story that almost didn’t happen.
One major obstacle the SGHT team had to overcome early on: How to contain the rat poison pellets to withstand a transport of 17,000 miles across rocky seas, as well as outdoor storage for months in the polar climate?
Another consideration was that Martin’s team of conservationists needed the containers to be recyclable and/or biodegradable. They wanted to leave virtually no evidence that they had even been there.
Eco-Shield: The Future Is Here
Bell Laboratories, the manufacturers of the pellets, had the answer.
They suggested the SGHT team contact Ox Box, an Illinois-based container company. Ox Box had recently developed a new container material called Eco-Shield, which incorporates plastic resin from recycled plastic bottles with corrugated fiberboard.
The company claims that, not only are Eco-Shield crates extremely strong, durable and weatherproof, their unique chemical composition makes these boxes recyclable and biodegradable, as well.
Bell Labs had good reason for recommending Eco-Shield: They had successfully used the special containers on a previous conservation project.
The Galapagos Experience
In 2012, conservationists waged a similarly aggressive campaign to poison the invasive rats living on Pinzón Island, part of the world-famous Galapagos chain.
The rats — introduced through human activity 200 to 300 years ago — were wreaking havoc among the Galapagos wildlife by preying on eggs and hatchlings of bird and reptile species. Particularly at risk was the saddleback giant tortoise, one of the world’s most ancient and endangered species.
But to save the tortoises and other threatened wildlife populations, the folks at Bell Labs had to ensure that their product would survive the trip to the Galapagos and the tropical Ecuadorian climate. In addition, the containers had to meet the Galapagos project’s strict environmental guidelines.
That’s when they turned to Ox Box for a solution. The Eco-Shield containers used by the team exceeded the project manager’s expectations, and helped them redefine “survival of the fittest.” Because of these containers, the project team was able to successfully “carpet bomb” Pinzón Island, one of the largest areas in the Galapogos chain.
Now, for the first time in more than 150 years, the population of saddleback giant tortoises is set to recover on its own.
Meanwhile, back on South Georgia island, ongoing monitoring of the SGHT team’s project indicates some early success. The bait pellets appear to be extremely attractive to rodents, who prefer the pellets over their natural food, but unattractive to seabirds and other indigenous species.
As the need for eco-friendly packaging and shipping materials increases, it’s just a matter of time before products like Eco-Shield become the norm.
Here’s the Eco-Shield promotional video, highlighting the South Georgia habitat restoration project:
South Georgia Heritage Trust