If you feel that putting rat poison into Montserrat's pristine forest, please send a letter or an e-mail with you concern to Dr. Avery (wildlife@rspb.org.uk)

The Oriole Correspondence

My initial Letter to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds:

Dr. Wolf Krebs, Veterinary Surgeon
P. O. Box 289
Gros Michel Drive, Olveston
Montserrat, West Indies





RSPB, The President
The Lodge, Sandy
Bedfordshire
SG192DL
U.K.
14 April, 2003

Dear Sir / Madam:

I wish to draw your attention to a problem that we have on the Island of Montserrat in the West Indies. On Montserrat, there exists the Montserrat Oriole, a bird that is endemic to our island. This bird has attracted considerable interest of researchers sponsored by your organization. While this research has created many interesting results, it also has led to a problem, which, I hope, you can help to resolve.

Your researchers believe that the decline that was found in the population density of the oriole is due to predation by rats. As a result of this hypothetical assumption it was decided to surround the nesting areas of the oriole with poison. I find this measure highly objectionable. In fact, the poisoning of our pristine forest amounts to environmental vandalism which should not be supported by an organization of such a sterling reputation as that of the RSPB.

However carefully the poison might be applied, nobody can guaranty that it only affects rats. Further, rats and orioles have coexisted on Montserrat for several hundred years. Why should rats suddenly be the cause of the bird's extinction? In addition, orioles may not be the only birds on Montserrat whose numbers decline. My own observation indicate that anis, thrushes, finches, and many others have declined in recent years. Thorough research would be very useful to establish a more general aspect of bird ecology on Montserrat.

I appeal to you, to immediately put an end to the poisoning of Montserrat's forest.

Yours sincerely,




(Wolf Krebs)

Dr. Avery's answer:

Dr. Wolf Krebs, Veterinary Surgeon
P. O. Box 289
Gros Michel Drive, Olveston
Montserrat, West Indies

1st May 2003

Dear Dr Krebs,

Thank you for your letter regarding the Montserrat oriole research and conservation project. This species, which is considered ‘critically threatened’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (The World Conservation Union), is found only on Montserrat, and is the subject of a collaborative project between the Montserrat Forestry Department (Ministry of Agriculture), the Montserrat National Trust and RSPB. The work was prompted by a very serious decline in oriole numbers that occurred subsequent to the main volcanic eruptions. If the rate at which the species declined between 1997 and 2000 were maintained it could risk total extinction within just a few years. The current project aims to identify the causes of this decline, and to test practical measures that could prevent the loss of such a unique component of the island’s – and the world’s - biodiversity.

The results from very detailed monitoring have shown clearly that the oriole's breeding productivity is distinctly low compared to similar species and that rats are a principle cause of this low productivity. Nest micro-cameras, and detailed observations of study pairs make this conclusion unequivocal. Given these results, we are now attempting to develop practical emergency measures to prevent extinction; one such measure involves using rat poison to control rats around oriole nests. Although we accept that rats have probably been established on Montserrat for a long time, they are an introduced rather than a native species and, with the added complexity of the volcanic eruption, it is highly likely that rat populations are contributing to the orioles’ decline. Our observations have shown that rat populations increased greatly from 1999 to 2001.

Rat control is now a widespread feature of conservation programs on many islands around the world, because of their predatory effect on much island wildlife. Prior to initiating this experiment, we consulted widely with relevant experts, to gather information on potential risks to non-target animals.

We are highly sensitive to the dangers of using any toxic substance in the environment. With this in mind, we have planned a small-scale test of the control method, to see if this will make a real difference to the orioles themselves, without causing any harm to the wider forest environment. In practice, only a tiny proportion of the Centre Hills area will be affected. We have taken every precaution with the selection of the poison baits, the design of the bait stations, and the selection of study sites. In addition, we are also monitoring other species in the area to check for any adverse effects on them; should any be detected, our methods would be adapted or curtailed accordingly. Our Research Biologist and the Forestry Department would be happy to show you, and anyone else interested, how the trial is being undertaken in practice.

We are very conscious that the oriole is not the only important species on Montserrat. A detailed program of wildlife monitoring by the Forestry Department, supported by RSPB and others, has shown that other bird species in Montserrat’s Centre Hills have not declined significantly since 1997, and indeed some are increasing. There is, however, good evidence that rats are significant predators of two other species for which Montserrat holds a large proportion of their global population, the forest thrush and mountain chicken.

Ultimately, the RSPB can only suggest conservation measures that we believe in good faith could assist Montserrat to conserve its unique biodiversity. It is then for the Department of Agriculture, our project partner to decide on any implementation of such recommendations.

We do take your concerns seriously, and it is only after much deliberation that we have considered these measures to be worth testing. We are more than happy to give further details on request.

Yours sincerely

Dr Mark Avery
Director, Conservation
RSPB

My answer:

Dr. Wolf Krebs
P. O. Box 289
Gros Michel Drive, Olveston
Montserrat, West Indies
Tel.: 664 491 6859, Fax: 664 491 7807, E-mail: krebs@candw.ag


Dr. Mark Avery
Director, Conservation
RSPB
The Lodge, Sandy
Bedfordshire
SG192DL
U.K.

2nd May, 2003

Dear Dr. Avery:

I thank you very much for your letter. I understand that your main concern is the survival of the oriole in Montserrat. I appreciate that. I would very much regret to loose this species. However, surrounding their nesting areas with poison should not be supported by your organization. Even if the poison is offered in bait stations there is no guaranty that no other species than rats could get to it. Further, rats have the habit to carry the bait out of the stations. They may drop a considerable amount of the poison anywhere in the forest. As the rats will not die in the bait station, your research fellows will never know how many rats if any  have been eliminated. Any result from this kind of "experiment" is impossible to interpret. Thus, the poisoning of the surrounding of the nesting area is not only environmental vandalism, it is also poor science. I wonder if you could do the same "experiments" as easily in the United Kingdom.
It would be better to use baited traps. You could dispose of any trapped rat and release any other animal. You would have an idea how many rats have been removed from the nesting area and your interpretations would be somewhat more solid.
From reading your letter I am getting the impression that your interpretations are strongly biased toward non-human causes for the decline of species in Montserrat. Your comment on the mountain chicken is revealing. The mountain chicken, as well as the oriole, has coexisted with rats in Montserrat for at least 400 years. The rats have not changed their way of life during this period. The human has.

At present, we have on Montserrat at least five restaurants that serve mountain chicken on a regular basis for lunch and for dinner. It is a very popular dish amongst locals and tourists. Each serving has the parts of three frogs. Many private households serve mountain chickens on occasion. Do you really believe rats could compete with us? By the way I would like to know on which investigation your statement is founded that the rat population had greatly increased? I am a longtime resident on Montserrat, and I am professionally involved with animals. I am not aware of any explosion of the rat population. Neither have I heard that rats have ever been counted in the forested parts of Montserrat.
Human activity could have an impact on the oriole as well. Water is removed from the center hills in ever increasing amounts to be pumped into human settlements. Heliconias are cut down for cut flowers, for agricultural plots or for no purpose at all. All kinds of poisons liberally are used in the forested areas. Nowhere else I have seen so many poisoned animals as here in Montserrat. It is sad to see that the RSPB is adding to these problems. From what I heard, the amount of poison that you imported to Montserrat had been substantial. I wish you would take it back.
I am very sad that I cannot persuade you to use more responsible methods in your oriole research.
Yours very sincerely,
Wolf Krebs, Dr. med. vet.