Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World’s Greatest Wildlife Rescue William Stolzenburg

Bloomsbury, pp.279, 12.99

This is a book for anyone whose blood ever ran chill on reading the most sinister recipe in fiction, Samuel Whiskers’ instructions on how to cook Tom Kitten: ‘Anna Maria, make me a kitten dumpling roly-poly pudding for my dinner, make it properly with breadcrumbs.’ With or without breadcrumbs, or indeed butter and flour as Anna Maria preferred, rats will eat anything, dead or alive, from kittens to albatrosses.

This is a book for anyone whose blood ever ran chill on reading the most sinister recipe in fiction, Samuel Whiskers’ instructions on how to cook Tom Kitten: ‘Anna Maria, make me a kitten dumpling roly-poly pudding for my dinner, make it properly with breadcrumbs.’ With or without breadcrumbs, or indeed butter and flour as Anna Maria preferred, rats will eat anything, dead or alive, from kittens to albatrosses. If they have a particular gourmet preference, William Stolzenburg reveals in his ripping ratocidal yarn, it is to nibble into the skull of a fledgling seabird and suck out the brains.

For the most part, however, they live off the cheese parings, chewed bones and forgotten crumbs that fall from the human table. Thus, wherever we go, there goes rattus rattus, the common brown rat, and sundry close relatives. However, its voracious appetite has now put it at the centre of a moral conflict dividing the ecological community. As our destruction of habitat drives rare species into remote and often island havens, where they become especially vulnerable to rats, the question arises, is it justifiable to wipe out one species in a particular place in order to let another survive?

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This is the background to Rat Island. Admittedly morality does not get much of a look in, not when the chief villain is a scaly-tailed brain-sucker, and the chief victim is an utterly adorable flightless parrot called a kakapo that smells of freesias, and seduces its mate with resonant booms delivered from a distended belly while dancing in a dusty bowl in the ground. The jungle-green kakapo once thronged New Zealand, having seen off the threat of pterodactyls and other high-flying raptors by learning to stand stock still whenever danger threatened. By the end of the 20th century, the same strategy used against four-footed predators had reduced its numbers to fewer than 100, and consequently propelled it far down the road already travelled by the giant moa, the passenger pigeon and the dodo.

The kakapo is hardly alone in the last chance saloon. About ten per cent of the estimated 10,000 species of birdlife are at risk, with many confined to island sanctuaries alive with rats, not to mention stoats, cats, egg-eating hedgehogs, and pasture-devouring rabbits and goats. Among them is the least auklet, a tiny relative of the razorbill, whose nesting area is the Aleutian island of Kiska.

This is where the heroes of Rat Island are introduced, conservationists with Rambo-like credentials such as ‘Karl Campbell, a hard-charging, crew-cut grad from Queensland, rapidly gaining a reputation as the goat-killer of the Galapagos’, determined to rid the sanctuaries of their different scourges, using traps, rifles, dogs and, above all, new super-warfarin poisons.

As recounted in Stolzenburg’s breathlessly readable style, their battles, saving scores of threatened species by wiping out the predators, provide the primitive excitement of watching Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry driving lowlifers out of San Francisco. In the last 15 years, more than 100 islands off New Zealand, Australia and the United States have been made safe for decent, upright, endangered birds, among them Codfish Island, purified to make a reserve for kakapos. The book weaves their stories into preparations for one supreme project, clearing the rats off Kiska.

Alas, as the author obliquely reveals, reality is rarely so clear-cut. Except in emergencies, such as that faced by flightless parrots, many conservationists oppose the killing policy, on grounds of ethics, expense and efficacy, since the vacuum is either quickly filled or unbalances some other component vital to the battle for survival. One example, not mentioned here, is the programme to protect nesting waders in North Uist by eliminating hedgehogs: after five years, 1,500 Mrs Tiggy-Winkles have been gassed, shot or transported to the mainland, at a cost of £1,000 an animal, with no obvious effect on the populations of either hedgehogs or nesting waders.

More seriously for the Rat Island narrative is the outcome of the Kiska plan. As the killing is about to begin in the penultimate chapter, it is abruptly revealed (spoiler alert!) that far from threatened extinction, the population of auklets remains in rough equilibrium with that of rats, and requires no human intervention. The science behind Rat Island may be doubted, but the bloodthirsty story-telling is irresistible.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Illustration, Non-fiction, Wildlife