Gavin Harrison leapt at the chance to be cast away on a deserted tropical island – even though it was crawling with rats
AS CHOICES go, it shouldn’t have been too difficult. Gavin Harrison was being offered the opportunity to live on a tropical desert island. His home would be a white sand beach surrounded by clear blue waters; he would be lulled to sleep at night by the gentle lapping of waves on the shore.
It sounded like a dream job, but it came with a catch: along with various species of exotic birds, the senior bird keeper at Edinburgh Zoo would be sharing his tropical paradise with thousands of rats.
Their presence would have been enough to put most people off, but it was the need to eradicate the rodents from Henderson Island, a UK overseas territory in the South Pacific, which called for Harrison’s aviculture skills. Harrison was part of a small team charged with protecting the rail, a bird species unique to the island, while the rat eradication project was undertaken.
“There were rats everywhere,” he says. “Most nights we’d get them visiting the camp.” It meant Harrison and his five fellow team members had to be scrupulous about tidying up after themselves. Even items like soap and toothpaste had to be carefully stored to stop the rats from gnawing them.
Described by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds as an “ecological time-capsule”, Henderson Island is home to 55 species of endemic birds and plants and is a World Heritage Site thanks to its unique, pristine flora and fauna. Harrison’s work was part of a larger RSPB and Pitcairn Islands government operation to conserve rare seabirds by removing non-native Pacific rats. The rodents, who probably reached Henderson Island from visiting boats centuries ago, were destroying the island’s habitat, driving the endangered Henderson petrel to extinction, and significantly damaging the populations of other bird species, rare plants, insects and snails, all found nowhere else on earth.
Despite their long-tailed island mates, Harrison said: “Henderson Island is a unique, beautiful place. It is the only raised forested coral atoll island in the world.” It is also incredibly isolated. “All you can see is the ocean. It’s amazing just knowing how remote you are. We only saw one boat in the whole five months we were there and it was a yacht.”
“We pretty much missed out on everything that happened in the world for five months, apart from occasional updates on the cricket scores. It was nice to be out of the loop for a while, living a basic life and not having to think about the outside world or use money.”
Untouched by humans and more than 3,000 miles from the mainland, the location of Henderson Island made the project extremely difficult. Making the 18,000-mile journey from Edinburgh involved six flights and took a week by air and sea. The last leg of the journey, from Pitcairn, the nearest inhabited island, was a 24-hour sail in a boat appropriately named Braveheart during which everyone in the team except Harrison was violently seasick.
“It was rough but there was no time to feel ill or jet-lagged,” he says. Once they arrived, the team had to unload their equipment and supplies and build their camp at the edge of the 43 square kilometre island. Their home for the next five months would be a coconut grove, created generations earlier to provide shelter for anyone shipwrecked in the surrounding waters. The group had to take everything they needed for their stay, from tents, DVDs and books, to bottled water for drinking, cooking and washing, and tins of corned beef and tomatoes. They also took materials to build aviaries for the rails they hoped to save.
They typically rose at 6am with the sun and breakfasted on muesli with powdered milk before clambering 150 metres up a steep coral embankment, where they’d spend the day working. The solution to the rat problem was to drop rat poison pellets across the island from bait buckets hanging beneath helicopters. Because the flightless rail, a relative of the moorhen and coot, feeds at ground level, there was a danger it would eat the poison. To guard against this, Harrison and his team set about catching the rails – an adrenaline-filled task, which involved “lots of running around and falling over and whacking your hands off hard coral”. The birds were then housed in the aviaries which were covered while the poison was spread. “The island is very hard to get around past the white sanded beach areas – the plateau is extremely difficult to walk on with jagged coral spikes which make for a dangerous working environment,” says Harrison, who shredded half-a-dozen pairs of shoes during his stay because of the rough terrain.
Their hard work was rewarded with temperatures consistently in the high 20s Centigrade, regular sightings of humpback whales and stunning views with palm trees, clear blue skies and crystal clear waters stretching as far as the eye could see.
“We knew that if we had any medical emergencies we couldn’t get help quickly,” continues Harrison, who, along with the rest of his team, had undergone a First Aid course designed for people journeying to remote locations. Luckily they didn’t need to put what they had learned to the test.
The greatest challenge was coping with the isolation, though desert island life wasn’t a complete shock to the system for Harrison. He’d previously carried out projects on the Hebridean island of Canna, and on an uninhabited corner of the Falkland Islands, though eight weeks in isolation was the longest he’d endured before. “You have to be mentally strong and a good team player, and after three or four months I was certainly looking forward to getting back to civilisation.”
His only contact with the outside world came via irregular calls to his girlfriend, Rachel, in Edinburgh via satellite phone and Skype. The team used a petrol generator to charge their electrical devices. Crucial to keeping morale up on the long, dark nights were the movie evenings he and his fellow castaways enjoyed. “We watched a lot of comedies, it was important to keep it light. Being a tropical island it was getting dark by 6 or 7pm and the evenings would be very long without some form of entertainment.” Their viewing included The Expendables, the Sylvester Stallone film about a group of mercenaries called to a remote island to assassinate a merciless dictator, and the entire series of 24, Kiefer Sutherland’s hit American espionage drama. His other essential survival tool was his iPod, filled with music by Coldplay and Radiohead which, Harrison concedes, “perhaps wasn’t the cheeriest of music” to pass the time while avoiding the rodents.
With long, physically strenuous days out in the field and a limited diet to keep him going, including a treat of chocolate once a week, Harrison lost a stone-and-a-half in weight. To add much-needed variety to their diet of tinned foods, Harrison did a lot of fishing, for coral trout and crayfish. “Luckily I’m quite good at fishing but I’ve never needed to rely on it like this before.” Otherwise dinner consisted of “rice and pasta, processed cheese and anything tinned”. The group had to wash using the water they took on to the island: the scarcity of their supplies meant a wash every fortnight was a luxury. “You’re basically not washing,” says Harrison.
The island was dry, and Harrison vividly remembers the cold beer he drank on the boat which came to collect them, in December. He adds: “I really missed fresh fruit and vegetables too” before confessing that the first thing he ate after returning to civilisation was a McDonald’s.
Harrison’s girlfriend does similar work and has recently completed a bird project in New Caledonia, an island in the Pacific, 900 miles east of Australia. When the two finished their projects they met up in Australia, where they are on holiday until the end of the month before flying back to Edinburgh.
Harrison’s team won’t know until 2013 whether the project has succeeded in eradicating the rats. But Harrison has already scored a major coup, after he successfully encouraged three pairs of rails to breed in captivity, a world first. At the end of his five-month stay, he released the captive wild rails, including the chicks, back into their natural environment. “It was amazing to be part of such an important project,” he says. “And to work with such an unusual species was a real joy.”
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Sunday 26 May 2013
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