Landslides caused by tens of thousands of rabbits have destroyed fragile penguin and albatross habitat on a remote Australian island near Antarctica, and the World Wildlife Fund is urging the government to eradicate the nonnative species.
A plague of more than 100,000 rabbits on Macquarie Island, which is listed as a U.N. World Heritage site, has stripped native tussock grasses, causing loss of nest cover and shelter from predators at breeding grounds for four million seabirds, among them members of two threatened albatross species.
"Albatross are extremely faithful to their sites and are unlikely to breed anywhere else if their habitat is lost," WWF invasive species expert Julie Kirkwood said in a statement.
She added that the erosion had caused 20 landslides. “We are still looking into the damage caused by landslides last month on penguin colonies,” Kirkwood told Reuters.
One large slide at Lusitania Bay killed an unknown number of birds, including penguins. The island is a breeding ground for about 850,000 pairs of penguins and 100,000 seals.
The damage was being made worse by rats and mice also living on the island, Kirkwood added. "Rat and mice numbers are also growing on the island, with evidence of rats killing young petrels in their nests," she said. Albatross chicks have also been seen being attacked by mice.
“The damage can be controlled, but it needs to be done quickly,” she said, calling on the Australian government to fund a $7.5 million eradication program.
Rabbits, introduced by European settlers in 1788, are one of Australia’s worst animal pests, causing millions of dollars in agricultural losses each year.
Control measures include viral sterilization and rabbit-proof fencing. In 1950, the government released the Myxomatosis virus into the rabbit population, causing numbers to drop from 600 million to around 100 million.
But Macquarie Island, about 930 miles southeast of Tasmania in the Southern Ocean, has seen its rabbit population boom from around 10,000 in the 1980s, the World Wildlife Fund said.
The group said several other nearby islands are facing the same pressure from rabbits and rodents.