Helicopters equipped with bait spreader baskets were visible in the skies above the equatorial region of the Galapagos Islands in January as skilled pilots broadcast tons of bait specially formulated by Bell Laboratories to eradicate rats threatening the seabird and other wildlife populations on these delicate island ecosystems.
In early January, Phase I of the Galápagos Restoration Project, the first large-scale project in South America conducted on oceanic islands, began when the Galápagos National Park Service, aided by its partners, launched what is described as a “full-scale assault” on non-native rats. Over two weekends, Jan.7-8 and 14-15, helicopter pilot John Oaks of Central South Island Helicopters from New Zealand broadcast 10 tons (9,195 kg) of bait on the small islands of Rábida, Bartolomé, Sombrero Chino, and Plaza Norte, and five islets – the two Beagle islets and three of the Bainbridge Rocks – covering 1,740 acres (704 hectares). Flying at 40 to 50 knots, the pilot dispersed two applications of bait, with each treatment taking two days. The entire helicopter operation, which was managed by Fraser Sutherland of HeliGal, took 37 hours of flight time, in addition to the work of ground crews loading bait pellets into the helicopter’s bait bucket which holds 600 lb. (272 kg) of bait.
Karl Campbell, a senior program director with Island Conservation in Santa Cruz, Calif., one of the project partners, was at the site during the baiting. “For a first operation in a country, the aerial baiting went extremely well,” he reported. “The few minor operational issues we encountered were quickly resolved and did not impact the timeline or efficacy of the operation.” Equatorial heat on the Galápagos Islands was a factor during the aerial baiting which, in recent years, has become a more common way of dispersing bait on large islands and locations with challenging topography.
Located some 600 miles (965 km) off the coast of Ecuador, the islands had summer temperatures of 85° F (30° C) at mid-day, making personal protective equipment, especially masks, very hot to wear. “With the heat, the island also generated winds during the middle of the day, making it hard for the pilot during this time as he was having to attempt to fly straight lines with gusty cross winds that were topography driven,” Campbell pointed out.