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South Georgia: An Island of Reindeer and Penguins
Earth's last paradise threatened by tourism
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2007-06-06 09:23 (KST)   
Grassy slopes
©2007 Luciano Napolitano

South Georgia Island, and the group of smaller islands around it, have been called one of the last paradises on Earth -- a Garden of Eden in the vast Southern Sea.

Kevin Schafer, a professional photographer who has traveled to the islands several times described them as:

"On paper, South Georgia can sound like a dreadful place: cold, savage and raw, raked by storms. Words like inhospitable and forbidding seem entirely appropriate, yet somehow they miss the mark entirely ... [It is] a place held in almost reverent awe by anyone who has ever been there."

"The struggles of Prion (no larger than a thrush) to make a life in the roughest seas in the world."
©2007 Ken Schafer

These islands have been protected by their remoteness and inaccessibility, but, like Antarctica, they are threatened by the increasing numbers of visitors who, paradoxically, want to view a place relatively unspoilt by man.

A ship visiting South Georgia Island
©2007 Luciano Napolitano

Luciano Napolitano, a world traveler who has visited the islands had this to say:

"I really hope that this last paradise will remain protected and that the only land owner will be the penguins. I believe that the tourism in such beautiful places may sensibilize the people to respect and love our beautiful planet, but I would limit the access only to the smallest cruise ships (50-100 passengers maximum) and closed visitors number, important to minimize the impact on this delicate environment."

Hundreds of thousands of penquins
©2007 Luciano Napolitano

It is a view shared by many. In January a cruise ship ran aground in Antarctica resulting in the evacuation of the passengers and crew and a oil leak that threatened the pristine environment. Efforts have been made through the Antarctic Treaty held in India this year to limit the size of ships and numbers of visitors to the Antarctic region.

The Church built by the Norwegians in 1912
©2007 Luciano Napolitano

In 1975 efforts to protect South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands were enacted through the passing of the 1975 Falklands Islands Dependencies Conservation Ordinance. Tourists are allowed only to visit King Edward Point and the Bay of Isles on South Georgia Island -- travel to other parts of the island can only be done with a permit.

Richard Harrington, who visited the island in 1976 was surprised that such measures had to be taken to provide the island some protection from the ravages of man:

The interior of the church
©2007 Luciano Napolitano

"We had hoped to call in at Stromness Bay's whaling station, the terminus of Shackleton's amazing adventures on sea and land, but it is off-limits to all visitors because of vandalism. Who expected vandalism in Antarctica?"

A reindeer, one of the herd of 2000
©2007 Luciano Napolitano

At the height of the whaling era, about 500 people lived or worked on the islands and the surrounding sea. Their impact is still felt on the islands. Over the last 120 years non-native animals have been introduced, sometimes unintentionally as in the case of rats and mice, or intentionally -- dogs, cats, sheep, horses, rabbits and reindeer. Most of these animals did not fare well, but rats and mice are a continued nuisance and threaten the colonies of nesting birds. The reindeer were introduced on South Georgia Island in 1911 by the Norwegian whalers as a source of meat and unlike most of the other early introductions have thrived and currently have a population of about 2,000. They are viewed as a threat to the environment by their heavy browsing and trampling of the fragile fauna and disrupting nesting birds. There has been a call to eradicate them in an effort to protect the island's native inhabitants.

The ruins of the whaling station
©2007 Luciano Napolitano

The rat and mouse are perhaps the greatest threat to the islands' bird populations. According to Dr. Kevin A. Hughes:

"Rats are common on South Georgia; sealers and whalers probably accidentally introduced them in the 19th century. Rats have had a significant impact on bird life on the South Georgia mainland, where Pipits and ground burrowing birds in particular are vulnerable to rat predation."

A white fur seal - once almost hunted to near extinction in the region
©2007 Luciano Napolitano

Efforts to eradicate them have been successful to a degree, but the recent discovery of a dead rat on one of the smaller rat-free islands (Bird Island) has raised some concern of the rats' tenacity to survive and to extend its habitat.

Fortunately, no further rats have been found on Bird Island, but it does demonstrate that man's effect on the environment lingers on.

The remains of the whaling fleet
©2007 Luciano Napolitano

I would like to thank Kevin Schafer and Luciano Napolitano for providing photographs and information of their travels to the region.

Related Articles
Whaling in the Lost Paradise

©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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