Marion Island, the larger of the two Prince Edward Islands, could be referred to as the jewel in South Africa’s island crown.  Home to some 28 species of breeding seabirds, the fate of these species is being challenged by invasive house mice (Mus musculus), which not only predates on vegetation and invertebrates, but also on eggs, chicks and adult nesting birds.

In April 2017, on the BirdLife South Africa (BLSA)  Flock at Sea AGAIN!  Cruise, Professor Peter Ryan of the University of Cape Town announced that BLSA would soon be launching an ambitious fundraising initiative. The goal – to eradicate the house mouse from Marion Island. Success in this project could effectively prevent 18 seabird species from going extinct, including a quarter of the globe’s Wandering Albatross population, the largest seabird on the planet, which breeds on Marion.

Prof Ryan’s announcement followed after he had shown the audience the now infamous video of mice eating an albatross chick alive. There had been talk of restoring Marion Island before this, but this was the first big step of what at the time was thought to be a simple enough task – raise enough money to fund the project. I remember vividly the droves of people who flocked to the vessel’s information counter to pledge their support and sponsor one (or more) hectares of Marion Island. A simple R1000/Ha donation would provide the funding needed to purchase the bait and, in so doing, paving the way to save the seabirds that breed on the island. A crowd-funding website was subsequently built, and the funds started slowly trickling in. A few large donations were also secured, which allowed us to move on to the next part of the project…

In 2018, New Zealand eradication expert, Keith Springer, was contracted to head out to Marion Island to put together proposed project and operational plans to get the project off the ground. These were completed and submitted at the end of 2018, but there was still a long way to go. Meetings were held between the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) and BLSA and there was a bit of a push on the fundraising front. The process of establishing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the Mouse-Free Marion (MFM) project was initiated between these two key partners. This document would outline the contract between the two parties and formalise the responsibilities of each. But big wheels turn slowly, and it became apparent that if we wanted to ensure that this project was successfully implemented, we would need to slow down and take the required steps within an existing system.

In the meantime, there was still collaboration with the Royal Society for the Protections of Birds’ (RSPB) Gough Island Restoration Programme (GIRP), and staff from both DEFF and BLSA were learning immense amounts about what it would take to implement a project of this calibre. However, in February 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic became very real and the world started to slowly but surely come to a standstill. The RSPB had to make the immensely difficult, but responsible, decision to postpone the GIRP from its intended launch in May 2020. After the decision was announced, there seemed to be a collective lull, and a chance for those in BLSA and DEFF to re-evaluate. The decision to postpone the GIRP would have an impact on the intended timeline for the MFM project, but in some ways it was a lucky break – as it gave us a chance to really, critically look at what had been achieved to date and come to terms with the mammoth amount of work still needing to be done.  And so, in that sense it took a global pandemic, and a general re-assessment of priorities for many organisations, for the MFM project to finally get the boost and attention that it needed to get the wheels turning again.

It became clear that the intended Marion project date for 2021/22 was no longer feasible and it was decided to work towards implementing the eradication in the austral winter of 2023. The MFM MoU was prioritised for finalisation and officially signed by DEFF and BLSA in May 2020.

Like many other organisations, the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic did and would continue to have a serious impact on funding streams. BLSA decided to be proactive about this, and started on some contingency planning so as to best use the time now “gifted” by the postponement of the GIRP. This led to BLSA calling a meeting with senior officials within DEFF and other key project collaborators. A significant outcome of this meeting was the establishment of the MFM Management Committee. This committee, made up of management level personnel within BLSA and DEFF, will oversee the review and ultimate implementation of the project and operational plans.

The management committee is meeting regularly and is in the process of the finalising the project budget, addressing matters such as ongoing biosecurity and recognising the importance of a well-planned and managed communications strategy. At present, the majority of the workload is being shared by existing personnel within BLSA and DEFF and each meeting brings new challenges, but also new insights and successes.

In order to execute the project within the envisaged time lines, it is essential to appoint a dedicated project manager to the project. The management committee recently ensured the finalisation of an Expression of Interest and advertising for the position of project manager, and we are positive that a suitable candidate will be appointed for this challenging yet rewarding position. The candidate would ideally start in early 2021 (before the annual relief voyage to Marion in April-May 2021), and applicants are encouraged to visit to view and apply for the position – the closing date is 30 September 2020.

So maybe, back in 2017, we were naïve in thinking that the MFM project would be much further along than it is now. But what we’ve lost in time, we’ve more than made up for in learning and experience. And while the 2023 “stake in the ground” is not a certainty, those that are currently involved in the project are putting every effort into assuring that the project is ready to roll out then. But – as we are so often reminded – a project of this calibre is a “once off” opportunity. Preparation is half the battle won, and the more time we devote to ensuring we are as well-prepared for the task as possible, the bigger our chances of success. We can make a serious difference to the conservation of this species and other seabird species, globally, if we get this right.