A veterinary adventure
I first became involved in the Gough Island Restoration Programme over seven years ago when the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), among other international partners, was asked to consult on an ambitious plan to save the seabird populations on this precious island. At that time, several huge logistical challenges remained and, for me as a veterinary surgeon, the captive health and welfare of the Gough bunting and Gough moorhen raised many important questions - What would be the best way to care for them in captivity? Which diseases might occur? What might their nutritional requirements be?
While these questions were daunting, it was clear the project needed to proceed if we were to save the birdlife on Gough and so we set to work on making a plan. Through an extensive process of literature review and applying our knowledge in other species we were able to develop a project veterinary disease risk assessment, in essence, a best assessment of the veterinary risks and most importantly what we could do to mitigate them. With this in place, we could then set about assembling all the kit which would be required to safely care for the birds.
When I was offered the chance to be part of the in-situ project team, I jumped at the opportunity. Having spent so much time working on the logistical aspects of the project remotely from Scotland, the prospect of visiting this remote wilderness was thrilling. So, in 2020, I travelled to Cape Town to join the first team heading out to Gough Island to setup the aviculture infrastructure prior to bringing the birds into temporary captivity.
Travelling to Gough is certainly a challenging experience. Heading due west into the Atlantic we were quickly hit by "rollers” from the south, these huge waves would cause the boat to tilt almost horizontally to one side and then spring violently back over to the other. Thankfully, the crew of the expedition sailing boat, the Evohe, were well experienced working in these conditions and while most of us retreated to our bunks (where canvass slings could be clipped in place to keep you somewhat tied-down), up on the bridge, huge waves crashed over the deck and the crew clipped on to safety lines to avoid being washed overboard. At last, we awoke on our ninth morning at sea to find the looming mountainous outline of Gough on the horizon. Eerie roars and groans from Subantarctic fur seals echoed out of the darkness as we got closer. Now all we had to do was scale the 30m cliffs to get ashore!
Almost as soon as our feet hit the ground, we set about building the infrastructure required for the aviculture work and, importantly for me, assembling what we can confidently call the most remote veterinary hospital in the world. Despite the humble appearance of the veterinary tent, I had carried a significant amount of indispensable veterinary equipment with me, including blood analysis machines, equipment for faecal parasite assessment, a full bird ICU and a well-stocked veterinary pharmacy. Essentially everything we might need to care for the birds effectively.
As the project progressed on the island, news reached us of the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. With countries rapidly closing their borders and the rest of the team unable to reach us, the devastating decision was made to postpone the project and an international effort swung into action to get us home. A 12 day and 1,969 nautical mile sail through rough seas to Ascension Island, followed by a 4,000-mile flight in an RAF A400 aircraft finally returned us safely to the UK.
Since then, RZSS has continued to provide lead veterinary support for the Gough Island Restoration Programme, including through the 2021 successful relaunch of the baiting project. It is a true honour to be involved in such a critical and ambitious conservation story and an absolute privilege to have been able to visit this magical island.
This year the RSPB and its partners have attempted 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.
The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) has protected threatened species in Scotland and around the world for over 100 years. As a leading conservation charity, it connects people to nature and safeguards wildlife across the globe. At Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park, diverse and dedicated teams care for almost 3,000 amazing animals and carry out cutting-edge science and research. The wild experts based in RZSS zoos support an incredible range of projects and direct conservation action, from the Highlands of Scotland to the wetlands of Brazil and rainforests of Uganda. As our natural environment faces a biodiversity crisis, RZSS is inspiring and empowering communities to help save animals from extinction.