Rat Island by William Stolzenburg, Bloomsbury, 2011. Review by MMB.
From the first I was sympathetic to the thesis of this book. When I read it, the squirrels in a nearby empty house had been culling unripe apricots from our tree, taking a quick nibble and throwing them away. That is a minor annoyance compared to the devastation described in Rat Island. This book charts how humankind has unwittingly damaged many species of animals and plants and driven some to extinction.
The story goes back hundreds of years and could be told across the world, but Stolzenburg concentrates on islands: those colonised by boat people around the Pacific Ocean, including New Zealand and Hawaii, and a number off the coast of North America, including the once aptly named Rat Island.
Until recently it seemed that simple human greed and ignorance had killed the forests of Easter Island, but rats were introduced to islands, sometimes for food, often accidentally. They prevented any regeneration of Easter Island forests by eating tree seeds. Elsewhere the rodents chewed through plants, insects, and brooding seabirds, upsetting the balance of nature, wiping out endemic species.
Control measures often made things worse. Weasels are as partial to eggs as the rodents they were supposed to eliminate in New Zealand, and satisfying their appetites drove the flightless, ground nesting Kakapo parrot to the very edge of extinction. Foxes, too, were all too happy to dine on nesting seabirds, literally sitting ducks.
Stolzenburg describes, in sometimes breathless prose, the faltering attempts to safeguard endangered species, and the resistance that fieldworkers and scientists faced from politicians, the public and well-meaning naturalists concerned about cruelty to rats dying from poison. He also documents the transformation when habitats were restored to the creatures that belong there. A good, informative read that puts next door’s squirrels into a global perspective. If you take Christian stewardship of creation seriously, it’s worth reading this well-researched and referenced book.