Isolation Proves Dangerous On 'Rat Island' For years, the New Zealand kakapo had no need to fly — the bird's only predators were in the sky — but then came human settlers and, with them, an invasive weasel-like predator. Author William Stolzenburg explores exotic island species' vulnerability to newcomers in Rat Island.
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Isolation Proves Dangerous On 'Rat Island'

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Isolation Proves Dangerous On 'Rat Island'

Isolation Proves Dangerous On 'Rat Island'

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Around the world, some of the most amazing creatures have evolved on the islands. Many of them are feathered and evolved in an isolated world where there were a few natural enemies. Ancient Hawaii was once alive with dozens more bird species than it has now. Once upon a time in New Zealand, you might've been awakened by the low booming call of a parrot called the kakapo. Then predators arrived.

That's the story found in a new book "Rat Island: Predators in Paradise." And wildlife journalist William Stolzenberg is especially taken with the fate of the kakapo.

Mr. WILLIAM STOLZENBERG (Author, "Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World's Greatest Wildlife Rescue"): The kakapo is a big, green, cuddly parrot that lives only in New Zealand. And it is flightless because, like a lot of the birds that gained access to these remote oceanic islands, had no predators except from the sky so it really did need to fly around, you know? And it became a flightless, walking bird.

It exuded this particular scent also that was supposed to attract, you know, other kakapos. But, of course, when the invaders got to New Zealand - when the rats and the cats and the weasels came to New Zealand - I mean this was a bird that was just set up for massacre and that's exactly what happened.

MONTAGNE: Which brings us to a fellow that you write about, Richard Henry, who was a self-taught naturalist, he ended up being at the center of a very early effort at conservation.

Mr. STOLZENBERG: Richard Henry, yeah, the ultimate handyman. He had started hunting to help feed the family, which was very poor. But he also, he took an interest in these birds. You know, he not only killed them for their skins; he would sell them to museums for specimens. But he would also, before killing them - and this is, you know, the contradiction of Richard Henry - he would sit and listen to them. You know, he grew to knew this bird like no other scientist ever would.

MONTAGNE: So the government of New Zealand, and this is back in the late 1800s, decides that it's going to set aside an island to save the kakapo when they realize that it's actually going extinct. They hire Richard Henry to go out there and be practically the only one on the island, and what happens?

Mr. STOLZENBERG: So he spends the next 10 years or so, braving, you know, great whitecaps and storms. And in traveling the sounds across the weather-beaten coast of New Zealand and bringing back these animals, and learning how to feed them, you know; he had to keep them in aviaries for certain times to make sure they're well fed before releasing them. And it was considered to be - this is going to be the fortress. This will be the sanctuary where we save these New Zealand natives.

MONTAGNE: Until the day when a weasel is spotted.

Mr. STOLZENBERG: Yeah, and somehow it has swum that mile from mainland to the island. And that for Richard Henry was a crusher, when for all purposes, this was his life's work - he was going to save the kakapo. He felt like his life's work had been in vain.

MONTAGNE: Decades after Richard Henry was crushed by the thought that all was lost, the kakapos were spotted again. How did that happen and what does that say about the potential for saving these creatures?

Mr. STOLZENBERG: When they came upon, in 1977, a population of about 200 of them then, and they had found the mother load of kakapos; not only that, they found the first females. And this is when they began to get serious about taking the kakapo's life into their own hands. They started incubating the kakapos under guarded watch. They started protecting and guarding their eggs. They would have people in tents watching the kakapos through remote TV cameras. And they would set traps all around the nest to make sure that no cats or rats could get to them.

Eventually, even that sanctuary was invaded. The cats got to them and they had an emergency rescue, whereby they took the last few handfuls of kakapos, moved them to an island called Codfish Island where most of them are now sequestered. And Codfish Island has been cleared of all predators, and so it is basically as about as pristine as you can find in New Zealand.

But it's still an island. I mean they are now basically refugees. They are exiles from the mainland and their living their lives out on this island where they are being watched 24/7 by Kakapo rangers who make sure that every egg, every mating now is a grand event. And they are watched very closely.

MONTAGNE: You write about another island, Kiska Island, which is also overrun by an invading species. Tell us just briefly about that.

Mr. STOLZENBERG: Kiska Island was a very important and pivotal site in the North Pacific theater of World War II. The Japanese had invaded Kiska early on in the war, and the United States was intent on taking it back. But also during this time, from some of these troops and some of their ships, a couple of rats made their way ashore, and over the intervening years, made their way over about 12 miles of this very rugged tundra, past a 4,000 foot iced-over volcano. And they came, eventually, to one of the most spectacular colonies of birds on the planet, where there's perhaps anywhere from one to six - some people even estimated 10 million of auklets nesting on this one tiny, little point of rock on the north side of Kiska Island.

MONTAGNE: And the rats, of course, could annihilate them eventually.

Mr. STOLZENBERG: This was a perfect, perfect score for the rats. I mean what we have here was, they have this tremendous colony of seabirds. They're tiny things. They're about three ounces. They're the size of a, say, of a robin or a sterling that we might be more familiar with. So you can imagine what that is for a rat to be coming upon these three ounce seabirds that have never seen anything like this in their evolutionary beginnings. They've never seen anything like a rat. They don't really know how to deal with a rat.

MONTAGNE: You know, you sort of wonder, you know, in this day and age why can't they just killed these invading species; poison them, or shoot them or get rid of them?

Mr. STOLZENBERG: Yeah. Well, first off, the size of this place, the enormity and the ruggedness of this place, and trying to get rats off of a place like this with surface means, like dropping poison on top of them, is a very daunting idea. This is a gargantuan expedition that is facing those who would save the auklets of Kiska.

MONTAGNE: So you have the kakapo and you have these little birds in the islands in the Aleutians who can't seem to be protected. What did you come away with thinking? I mean did you come away with hopeful? Or is this all very bittersweet, that we know these creatures are out there, but nature can be just one Rat Island after another?

Mr. STOLZENBERG: Yeah, there is great hope in the story and there is great fear for me in this story, in that these islands are metaphors for what's happening to the world. We have a very clear view of what's going on, and these islands provide that. So it puts it on us. We put them in this position. Now we have a decision to make: We can either stand back and say, let nature take its course; or we can decide that this is our responsibility and do something about it.

(Soundbite of song, "Similau")

MONTAGNE: William Stolzenberg is the author of "Rat Island: Predators in Paradise." You can glimpse a big green kakapo at

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.


And Im Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite of song, "Similau")

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