Two attempts to reverse a man-made environmental catastrophe on a tiny sub-Antarctic island have backfired, necessitating the implementation of a $16-million rescue plan and providing a warning for scientists attempting to remove invasive species in other regions of the world.
The site of the disaster is tiny Macquarie Island, a 50-square-mile dot in the Southern Ocean about halfway between Australia and Antarctica. It was named a World Heritage Site in 1997 because it is the only place on Earth where rocks from the Earth's mantle are being actively exposed above sea level.
Soon after the island was discovered in 1810, seafarers began visiting it to slaughter fur seals, elephant seals and penguins for their fur and blubber. When the sailors docked, rats and mice abandoned the ships and took up residence, attacking food stores on land. To counter them, the sailors started bringing cats to the island about 1818.
Following a common tradition, sailors also introduced rabbits to the island about 60 years later to provide a food source for stranded seamen. Cats and rabbits both proliferated, with the population of rabbits reaching about 130,000 in the 1970s. The cats fed on both the rabbits and native birds; two species, a flightless rail and a parakeet, were exterminated. The rabbits were stripping the island's vegetation bare.