Atlantic penguin alert

Mike Fraser, RSPB conservation officer based at Lindean Mill, Selkirk with the bird he discovered in Tristan da Cunha. The Upland Inaccessible Bunting ( Nesospiza Acunhae Fraseri ) was named after him.
Mike Fraser, RSPB conservation officer based at Lindean Mill, Selkirk with the bird he discovered in Tristan da Cunha. The Upland Inaccessible Bunting ( Nesospiza Acunhae Fraseri ) was named after him.

RSPB officer Mike Fraser is appealing to Borderers to help people living on the most isolated island in the world save their wildlife.

The bird lover RSPB officer in the Borders has first hand experience of Tristan da Cunha and of Saint Helena, Ascension, also in the south Atlantic ocean, having taken part in wildlife expeditions there.

Last month a cargo ship crashed into one of the islands, Nightingale, covering thousands of rare penguins in oil.

The RSPB nationally has launched an appeal for help the islanders as they battle to save the birds: “Even before the disaster, the northern rockhopper was one of the most threatened penguin species,” say the charity.

Mr Fraser was last on Tristan da Cunha 19 years ago with a five-month expedition to nearby Inaccessible Island. In 1982, he was studying birdlife on Gough Island, south of Tristan da Cunha, which is said to be the most important sea bird island in the world.

Mr Fraser said of the oil disaster: “It’s very worrying, but it’s very encouraging to see how the islanders have responded and, because it’s a UK overseas territory, there is an RSPB officer there helping the conservation department.

“I feel useless at this distance, but I’m confident they will deal with it in the best way possible.

“The islands are unusual and fascinating, described as the Galapagos islands in miniature because there are various ecological processes going on there.”

His fear now is that the rats and mice that are almost certainly on aboard the cargo ship, will invade the islands. A three-strong conservation team on Nightingale is monitoring rodent bait stations every two days.

“Nightingale is only four square kms and is home to one of the rarest birds in the world, the Wilkins’ bunting – there are only about 100 of them. It probably won’t be badly affected by the oil but if rats or mice get ashore from the ship – and most ships have rats – it would be absolutely disastrous. If we lose the Wilkins’ bunting from Nightingale, they are lost from the world forever.”

He described Inaccessible as “one of the least spoilt temperate islands in the world” where the world’s smallest flightless bird, the Inaccessible rail lives: “It’s an amazing little thing, it sits in the palm of your hand.”

“The island is an almost unique natural system where there are no rats or mice.”

He praised the islanders’s work to save the threatened penguins. The birds’ rescuers have drained their swimming pool and filled it with unchlorinated water for the recovering birds.

“They are very resourceful and energetic people and they’ve dropped everything to deal with this,” said Mr Fraser: “They have done some fantastic work gathering up the penguins. They have been catching fish to feed the birds and 16 tonnes of pilchards from Cape Town arrived at the weekend. They have shown a real devotion to their famous rockhopper penguins, which in the old days they used to harvest and make table mats from their tassles.”

The island’s conservation department has been working 24 hours a day since the disaster on March 18 when the ship broke up two days after running aground.

By Saturday, 3,662 penguins had been taken to the rescue centre on Tristan da Cunha of which 1,577 have died. More than 2,060 are being fed daily and conservationists are holding a further 63 on Nightingale waiting for a break in the weather to get them to Tristan.

Tristan da Cunha is 1,500 miles west of Cape Town and 1,800 miles east of Argentina and was settled by Kelso-born William Glass – who initially went there to protect St Helena where Napoleon was imprisoned in 1816.

To help click, on the penguin appeal section at www.rspb.org.uk