Dundee Professor named Conservationist of the Year

Tony Martin, Professor of Animal Conservation at the University of Dundee, has been named as Conservationist of the Year in recognition of his exceptional leadership of the world’s largest rodent eradication operation.

Professor Martin, of the University’s Centre for Remote Environments, received the prestigious award from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). He leads the South Gergia Heritage Trust’s Habitat Restoration Project, which seeks to reverse two centuries of devastation caused by rats that threatens the globally important seabird sanctuary of South Georgia, a British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic. 

Since their arrival on the island as stowaways on whaling and sealing vessels, rats have preyed on ground-nesting seabirds, resulting in the dramatic loss of the island’s diversity and millions of birds, with some species unable to breed on the main island.

The successful eradication of rodents would allow an estimated 100 million seabirds to recolonise the archipelago and save the South Georgia pipit, which can only be found on the island, from eventual extinction.

Project planning began in earnest in 2007, and the baiting work was undertaken in three phases - in 2011, 2013 and 2015 - by an international team operating in often hostile conditions imposed by South Georgia’s notoriously extreme and fickle weather. 

Over the course of the operation, 336 tonnes of bait were dropped by the Trust’s helicopters, using GPS tracking systems to keep an accurate record of bait coverage, as well as some hand-baiting, over more than 1,000 square kilometres of mountainous terrain.

Monitoring work to date indicates that the first phase of baiting was successful, and a large survey at the end of 2017 will assess whether the areas baited during the second and third phases were similarly effective in removing every single rodent.  Fundraising efforts to support this vital survey work are continuing.

Professor Martin said, “I am immensely proud to receive ZSL’s Conservationist of the Year award, and do so on behalf of the many people who contributed to this landmark project. It was a privilege to lead such a remarkable team of people, 'Team Rat' as we became known, on this breath-taking sub-Antarctic island.

“This has been a huge and challenging enterprise - by far the largest and most ambitious of its kind ever attempted. It has depended on the expert advice and skills of people from all over the world, and the financial support of thousands of South Georgia enthusiasts with the passion to help restore the island to its glorious condition prior to the first human footsteps. 

“It’s gratifying that there are already signs of recovery on South Georgia, thanks to our combined efforts. South Georgia pipits are already singing and breeding in places where they have not been seen within living memory, a heartening indication that the rats have gone from that locality, at least!”

Even before taking on the challenge of SGHT’s Habitat Restoration Project, Professor Martin was no stranger to the tempestuous sub-Antarctic weather and iconic wildlife of South Georgia. He spent many years as a cetacean biologist with the Sea Mammal Research Unit, before transferring to the British Antarctic Survey in a broader role, leading investigations of the Southern Ocean foodweb. This research took him from the tropics to the high Arctic to the sub-Antarctic, and South Georgia in particular. 

He joined the University of Dundee in 2010, from where he was seconded to SGHT. He has also been a UK delegate to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission since 1979. A keen seabird biologist and passionate about conservation, Martin was to prove the ideal candidate to lead the Trust’s ambitious and globally significant eradication project.

Professor Jonathan Baillie, ZSL Director of Conservation Programmes, added, “On behalf of ZSL, we’re delighted to recognise Professor Martin’s invaluable work with the Society’s prestigious Conservationist of the Year award. South Georgia is a special place and one of the South Atlantic’s last great havens for wildlife, so his efforts to preserve its fragile ecosystems embody the values this award was established to celebrate.”

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