Back To The Island

Kage Baker would undoubtedly have said, “Yecchhh!”

Also, “I should think they’d be grateful. Who’d want those things back?””

Eventually, though, she would see that the black rats of Lord Howe’s Island have got to go.

You all remember Lord Howe’s Island, I am sure, Dear Readers. It was the home of the eponymous Lord Howe’s Island Stick Insect, aka Land Lobsters. They are the outlandishly large and armoured stick insects once indigenous to that tropic isle, long thought extinct. They were recently rediscovered on Ball’s Pyramid – a needle of about 15 mostly vertical acres in the Tasmin Sea – under a melaleuca bush. In the dark, by some climbers doing a bio-inventory of the big pointy rock that is Ball’s Pyramid …

I wish I could have seen their faces when they found a nest of foot long bugs apparently carved out of licorice. But whatever their reactions, they were in the best tradition of biologists: the endangered insects were transported to a breeding paradise in Australia. The Lord Howe’s Stick Insect, once extinct, now numbers somewhere around 11,000.

That’s an awful lot of really big bugs, you know? What do you do with 11,000 giant bugs? Aside from try and take over the world, of course … well, you find them somewhere to live, somewhere more nurturing of a giant insect life style than the sterile halls and boxes of a lab. The logical place to turn them loose would be Lord Howe’s Island, where one presumes there is a giant bug-shaped eco-niche now empty and longing to be filled.

Unfortunately, the cause of the insects’ extinction is still there, and in fact living in several species’ eco-niches. They are a huge menace to the dominant fauna  – which, like most Pacific islands, is primarily birds – and in fact have helped obliterate 8 endemic species of birds, including a Coot, a Pigeon a Parakeet and the unfortunately named BooBook Owl. And these are gone forever; none of them evidently had the sense to head for Ball’s Pyramid or nearby Roach Island. Many endemic species of bird have fled to both or either of those islands; petrals, shearwaters, noddies and terns. (I don’t know for sure what else is on Roach Island, but I am absolutely sure I don’t want to know, either.)

And what has caused this holocaust on Lord Howe’s Island? Oddly enough, not humans. No, it’s rats. Thousands and thousand of rats. Black rats, to be precise (Rattus rattus); a charming animal when encountered singly or in same-sex pairs in a secure cage. However, give them a chance to run around and breed, and you will shortly find yourself knee-deep in black rats. And very little else.

On Lord Howe’s Island, the rats have done for lots of birds; lots of insects, though apparently only the Stick Insect was driven to near-extinction; the beetles, as usual, are doing just fine. But there is a skink, a gecko and a snail, all endemic, which are suffering badly from being rat-chow.

There is only one native mammal left on the entire island. This is the Large Forest Bat.  The Small Forest Bat used to live there, too, but was eaten by – guess, anyone? – the rats.

Basically, although Lord Howe’s is a sort of pocket paradise, it is rapidly coming to be so only for humans and their symbiotic animals: dogs, cats and rats. And in the meantime, there are 11,000 Stick Insects looking for a home. So a campaign is now in the works to get rid of the rats by bombing them with poison:

It is to be hoped that the dogs, cats and humans will be brought under control by less drastic measures. I also think it’s safe to assume that the entomology crew at the vast subterranean Company redoubt  in Australia have at least one member on the directing board for the Rat Crusade. They have a very personal stake in this: they probably have even more stick insects than the Australian Zoo that has bred the 11,000.

But, really, how can there be an argument? For the sake of the Lord Howe’s Stick Insect alone, the battle should be fought. They showed amazing resourcefulness for a non-beetle insect, making their little refuge under that maleleuca bush … whereas rats can thrive anywhere, and just about inevitably lower property values when they do.

Someone needs to make it possible for the Stick Insects to go home. Someone needs to save the Large Forest Bat, the Stag Beetle and the Flax Snail. And the birds … shearwaters, petrals, boobies and terns visit all the Pacific Islands, but how can you really have too many white-winged sea birds? Blackbirds, kestrals and wood hens are doing rather well, though the wood hens have had to retreat to a preserve. But the Emerald Ground Dove, the Sacred Kingfisher, the White-eye, the Currawong and the Golden Whistler – those still need to be saved from the rats.

And I know Kage would agree: a few giant bugs are a reasonable price to pay for a white-faced heron.

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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6 Responses to Back To The Island

  1. Medrith says:

    OK, I am off to look up the BooBook Owl. (I do not think this is an unfortunate name at ALL!)


  2. Medrith says:

    Ohmygoodness, it’s the Morpork! My goodness!


  3. Islander says:

    you are stupid, rats are a problem but not how you and the news have depicted it. I am an islander and you are lucky to see a rat maybe once in a blue moon. Yes they are a problem, but we are dealing with it. You have no idea what your comments do to our tourism! we are not the next ‘rat island’ in fact we are FAR from it! We have important species to preserve which we do our UPMOST BEST to do, but we do not need people like you who have an opinion to share it without the knowledge of what we islanders do to preserve our heritage, not yours.


    • Kate says:

      Dear Islander: You imply that you are a resident of Lord Howe Island. I congratulate you – it appears to be a lovely place. It’s evidently not very friendly, though.

      I’m sorry I offended you with my observations. I truly am; that wasn’t my intention at all. The Island is a fascinating place with some interesting problems – I was enchanted with the names of the birds that live there. And heartbroken to learn of the fate of so many of them.

      But I doubt my little piece will effect your tourism particularly. I, for one, would love to see Lord Howe Island. At least, I would have liked it before hearing from you. Calling people names is not condusive to tourism.

      For the record: I wrote this blog based on an article in public media, describing a rat problem bad enough to require mass poisoning. My support research identified several endemic species definitely considered to have been eliminated by the rats, and several more that were endangered by them. Your endemic wooodhen has had to be restricted to a preserve in order to survive; half a dozen species of sea birds are now breeding elsewhere, because of the rats; all but one of the native mammal species have been destroyed. I don’t expect you do see a rat very often – rats are cautious of humans. But the birds and reptiles and bats see the rats, I assure yoyu. You definitely have a problem, a real problem, a public problem.

      There was no indication that the rats were a state secret, or too sensitive to be mentioned. Your heritage? Humans haven’t lived on that island very long, Islander. The species that have evolved there are the heritage of the entire world, not just you. And so far, your track record with them is not that good.

      I’m not stupid. And I am genuinely sorry I offended you,. I’d like to suggest, though, that until you learn a reaction other than screaming at people who observe your problems, you are not going to have a good relationship with anyone else anyway. Over anything.

      I am leaving your remark up here as a courtesy. I hope you can behave in a similar fashion.


  4. gold price says:

    What is almost certain, however, is that after a shipwreck in 1918, rats escaped onto the island and the phasmids disappeared soon after. They were thought extinct until the 1960s when climbers ascending the spectacularly rugged Balls Pyramid – separated from Lord Howe by a 23-kilometre wide, 800-metre deep stretch of ocean – found newly dead phasmid specimens.


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