Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World’s Greatest Wildlife Rescue by William Stolzenburg
Like stranded teenagers cavorting in a B-grade horror movie, island birds come ill prepared to deal with menace. In his latest book, William Stolzenburg opens with the gruesome fates that await native birds confronted with a seemingly endless parade of introduced rodents, cats and foxes. Consider Gough Island, off the South African coast: “Gangs of mice were rushing from out of the dark to attack birds three hundred times their size. The mice were chewing holes in the rumps of seventeen-pound albatross chicks as they sat, eating the living birds from the inside out.”
Islands, small and contained, make the dangers of invasives particularly severe. But the small and contained nature of islands also allows conservationists to set things right. Stolzenburg—one of conservation’s most astute chroniclers—tells this as an adventure story, full of characters, failed missions and easy-to-despise villains.
Through trial and a lot of error, conservationists now employ the latest research and technology to eradicate the invaders. It’s an often remarkable story of success, of turning biological desert covered in rat turds into an island paradise echoing with the chorus of baby birds.
But even in paradise restored, there can be uncomfortable truths. Conserving birds means many furry mammals must die, often painfully. While rats and foxes make convenient villains, they’re really just following their own evolutionary paths. Stolzenburg briefly mentions the concerns of animal rights activists, but is rooted firmly in the “ends justify the means” camp. He also fails to address the very real possibility that a new generation of rats might recolonize these islands, thereby starting the whole cycle anew. But these are minor quibbles: it’s a well-told, well-paced tale, that rare conservation book that is suited for the beach. Just watch out for what’s nibbling on your toes.
—Reviewed by Matt Miller, senior science writer, The Nature Conservancy
(Image: Man reading by lake. Source: Flickr user santheo via a Creative Commons license.)