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Book Worm… Rat Island by William Stolzenburg: A Review

By Jack Ashby, on 31 July 2013

Book Worm

Book Worm – that’s Grant and a lugworm

Book Worm is our occasional series for reviewing books. Today I bring you my thoughts on William Stolzenburg’s Rat Island published by Bloomsbury in 2011.

When I was about 13 I read David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo. His telling of the history of island biogeography through the prism of extinction was a great influence on my becoming a biologist. When I came across Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World’s Greatest Wildlife Rescue I was thrilled to return to where Quammen left off.

According to Stolzenburg, islands harbour 20% of terrestrial biodiversity on just 5% of the land (read Song of the Dodo to learn why). They also account for nearly half of the world’s critically endangered species. One of the main reasons is the damaged caused by introduced species, most notably rats.

Rat Island tells the story of attempts to rescue species threatened by introduced rats (and cats, Arctic foxes, mice, goats, stoats and ferrets) by campaigns to wipe out the rats. The tales focus on the people behind the eradications as much as much as the animals involved, and this is one of the reasons it is such an excellent example of compelling science writing.

Some incredible feats of field craft have been employed to destroy invasive populations that could number in the millions, as well as some disastrous ones. After rabbits were introduced to New Zealand, and subsequently decimated habitats, stoats and ferrets were introduced to control them. This, along with rats, pushed the kakapo to the very brink of extinction. Stolzenburg’s account of the long history of the campaign to save the world’s largest and strangest parrot is as well-told as any ecological story can be. It begins in the 1870s with the story of Richard Henry and his attempted rescue of kakapos and kiwis to the uninvaded island of Resolution, and the eventual downfall of his one-man campaign.

As the book moves around the world, explaining how rat eradications became more sophisticated, tackling larger islands, Stolzenburg regularly returns to kakapos and New Zealand and to auklets in the Aleutians as his main protagonists. He explains how developments and failures fed into successive campaigns.

He talks of the politics of killing for conservation. Individuals as well as organisations like PETA can react strongly and violently to the idea of people killing animals to fix a problem caused by humans (who did the introducing). As someone who has been involved in fieldwork which involved removing invasive species, I know this discomfort biologists feel in killing animals, but I’ve also seen the damage they do. Hundreds of species have been driven to extinction by rats and their colleagues and Rat Island makes as compelling a case as any for this necessary evil (though I don’t think that’s an intention of the book).

Stolzenburg includes accounts of campaigns which resulted in significant collateral damage. For example where bald eagles and others were killed by the poison in the dead rats they ate. These stories give great balance to the book.

The book is never repetitive, which one might expect from telling many histories of similar problems. Stolzenburg added significantly to my understanding of a topic I thought I was well versed in. He busts a few myths too. I was almost disappointed to learn that the well-known story of the light-house keeper’s cat (one moggy that single-handedly wiped out the Stephens Island wren) is not all that is said to be.

Rat Island is a genuinely affecting book. It stirred emotions and left me with stories I have been recounting to friends regularly. This book is definitely going on the list of my favourite natural history writings.

Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology.

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