A long wait to reconnect in one of the most remote places on earth
Guest blog by Noé Silva Estudillo, Technical Director, Grupo de Ecología y Conservación de Islas, A.C.
Noé on a reconnaissance flight during the black rat eradication on Cayo Centro, Bancho Chinchorro, Mexico, 2015
© GECI / J.A. Soriano
My journey from Mexico to South Africa started on May 7th. Due to the covid pandemic, my travel plans were complicated. I live in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico, where the headquarters of my organization—Grupo de Ecología y Conservación de Islas, A.C. (GECI)—are located. Therefore, the easiest, fastest, and cheapest way to do my trip to South Africa was to fly from Los Angeles, USA to Cape Town. In normal times, I would have used the northern Mexico-USA border crossing in Tijuana and then take the train from San Diego to Los Angeles. However, although I tried a couple of times, armed with support letters plus a negative PCR test, the restrictions were tight and only travel for essential purposes was allowed. Yes! I did use the argument that my travel was for an essential purpose, participating in one of the most complex, challenging, and collaborative island restoration projects in the world: removing invasive mice from Gough Island, a renowned World Heritage Site. Yet, I had to reorganize my travel plans.
So, after three days and multiple flights—including a couple just to get from Mexico to the USA for my flight to South Africa—I got to Cape Town safe and sound. And then I had to spend 21 days in quarantine! During my long trip and quarantine, I went through the tasks I will contribute to during the mouse eradication operation on Gough Island. Mostly, I will be working around helicopters, bait buckets and all sorts of spare parts to ensure a smooth baiting operation. One of my main tasks will be coordinating the loading of bait into the bait buckets for each of the four helicopters that will be operating simultaneously, ensuring that no precious baiting time is lost. It will be a bit like coordinating multiple pit stops at a professional car race.
Noé doing the last adjustments to the bait bucket during the deer mouse eradication on
San Benito Oeste Island, Mexico in 2013 © GECI / J.A. Soriano
As GECI’s Technical Director, I have been involved in this type of operation for the past 14 years. In that time, we have successfully conducted 16 rodent eradications, seven of which have been done using helicopters to distribute the bait as the primary method, most of them led by my compatriot and former GECI staff member Dr Araceli Samaniego, who recently joined Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research (MWLR) and is the Technical Advisor for the mouse eradication operation on Gough. It has been years since we have seen each other.
That is probably one of the great things of joining this incredible project. To reconnect with old friends and colleagues and meet new ones along the way while saving millions of seabirds by removing the invasive mice from Gough. It’s also great to see Pete McClelland again — he’s the Operations Manager for the Gough project, and a great friend. We met back in 2008 in another remote site in a different continent, Hawadax Island (formerly Rat Island; you can only imagine why!) in the Aleutian Islands, USA, during the black rat eradication project there. Then again in 2013, we met in Murchison and Faraday Islands—within the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site—as part of the team that conducted Canada’s first eradication of black rats using helicopters to distribute the bait. Eight years later, and we meet again to keep on working together—side by side with many committed people from a myriad of institutions—to restore island ecosystems.
GECI Staff celebrating the successful execution of the black rat eradication on
Cayo Centro, Banco Chinchorro, Mexico in 2015. To date, GECI has completed 60 successful eradications of invasive mammals on 39 islands in Mexico © GECI / J.A. Soriano
I feel fortunate and honoured to be part of the Gough Island Restoration Programme team and I am ready to put into practice all I have learned, and all my skills and experience gained whilst implementing island restoration projects such as this in Mexico. I am certain also that I will learn a lot!
Noé has 20-years of experience on island conservation and restoration projects. As GECI’s Technical Director, Noé directly supports the restoration of Guadalupe Island and participates on different projects on Mexican islands. He has wide experience working on farms and agricultural businesses. His multiple skills include welding, driving heavy and specialized machinery, mechanics, construction, maintenance and operation of field stations, as well as trapping invasive non-native fauna. He collaborates on monitoring activities and is an expert on advanced tracking techniques to eradicate invasive non-native fauna. He has experience supporting helicopter work for restoration purposes (DGPS and special bait buckets) in Mexican islands and has been part of international teams on eradication projects in the USA and Canada.
The Grupo de Ecología y Conservación de Islas, A.C. (GECI) is a Mexican civil society organization (CSO), fully devoted to the comprehensive restoration of islands through a multidisciplinary approach and science-based management. Based in Ensenada, Baja California and La Paz, Baja California Sur, GECI is integrated by 45 experienced professionals and specialized technicians, all of them very multifunctional, interdisciplinary, and resourceful. To develop its work, GECI enjoys a sustained support from several Mexican government authorities, CSOs, local fishermen communities, and national and international donors. To date we have (1) successfully eradicated 60 populations of invasive mammals from 39 priority islands, 30 of which are now completely free of invasive mammals, benefitting over 200 endemic flora and fauna species; (2) fostered the recovery of 85% of extirpated seabird colonies through social attraction techniques; (3) promoted the legal protection of all Mexican islands; and (4) formulated and implemented biosecurity protocols to ensure restoration outcomes are long-lasting.
This year the RSPB and its partners will try to eradicate the house mice on Gough and make it a seabird paradise once again. The project was originally scheduled to go ahead in 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic meant the RSPB and the Tristan da Cunha government had to abandon these plans and airlift the team home. With the delays the project now has a significant funding deficit.
If you would like to help close this funding gap, you can donate directly to the restoration project at https://www.rspb.org.uk/join-and-donate/donate/appeals/gough-island/
Acknowledgement The Gough Island Restoration Programme is being carried out by the RSPB in partnership with Tristan da Cunha, BirdLife South Africa, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (South Africa), the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Island Conservation, Conservación de Islas, Manaaki Whenua - Landcare Research and BirdLife International. The programme is part-funded by the RSPB, the UK Government, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other generous individuals and organisations.