Rats to the naysayers who say things can’t be done

Remarkable story of South Georgia rat clearance demonstrates power of persistence

A whaling station on  South Georgia.  The island has been declared rat-free after centuries of rodent devastation. Photograph: Andrew Orr/ Barcroft Images/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

A whaling station on South Georgia. The island has been declared rat-free after centuries of rodent devastation. Photograph: Andrew Orr/ Barcroft Images/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

 

Rats, those hairy rodents, purveyors of the plague and general ne’er-do-wells. For the few occupants of the little island of South Georgia in the southern Atlantic, they represented an invasive alien species preying on the local bird life for nearly 250 years.

The island’s infestation can be traced back to the rats jumping ship from the whaling boats centuries ago. Since then they have caused chaos.

A solution seemed to be at hand when a team of Australian and New Zealanders worked out a way to use new poison baits slung out of helicopters to wipe out a similarly invasive rat population on two small sub-Antarctic islands, Campbell and Macquarie.

Yet transferring the tech to an island the size of South Georgia, 10 times larger than either of these two islands, seemed impossible. As the Guardian this week illustrated, the island is roughly three times the area of greater London. And then there’s the weather: South Georgia is also in one of the stormiest corners of what is already a pretty unforgiving part of the planet. It was going to be dangerous, expensive and highly likely to fail.

Yet with tenacity and the ability to push through decisions thanks to a small project team and the lack of multiple they delivered results. Over three seasons, three helicopters were used to drop 300 tonnes of bait near rodent populations.

Poisoning regime

Of course it didn’t go like clockwork. At times, when scientists believed they had eradicated rats from one area, they returned from another nearby section of the island, meaning the poisoning regime had to begin again.

Yet, what they delivered is extraordinarily effective. As Matt Ridley explained in this week’s Spectator, the first lesson from this is that the fact there was just a handful of people involved in the project meant it didn’t get bogged down in reviews and meetings, risk analyses and buck-passing or delay.

Needless to say the story of the South Georgia rat clearance has led the conservationists to consider the project team’s application process for other problems currently considered impossible to tackle.

Whatever about the conservationist benefits, the story demonstrates the power of persistence and striving for what many others consider impossible or foolhardy. Many of today’s hottest businesses faced similar warnings that they were pipe dreams. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos was ridiculed for his plans for a global online retail empire, while Elon Musk has been regularly mocked for his grand plans, one of which is literally a pipe dream about high-speed transport. Yet for all the naysayers and stumbles along the way, his cars are on the roads, his rockets have been to space and his solar panels are powering households.

That’s not to say we need to believe and support every wide-eyed dreamer. There’s always room for a strong dose of cynicism and doubt. And as Pilita Clark advocated in her column on Monday, there are noted business benefits from negative thinking, or as the academics refer to it “chronic unease”. This boils down to expecting the worst, or not being complacent when all is going well.

Yet that negativity and doubt is there to police the implementation or application of a plan, not to stymie it before it even gets off the ground.

Disruptors

This is a long-winded way of saying that innovators need to ignore the noise and get on with implementing their ideas. And for those that do, we are eager to recognise their achievements. This year’s Irish Times Innovation awards are now open for entries. From start-ups led by enterprising individuals to the island’s multinationals and every scale of business or organisation in between, we are looking to recognise and reward disruptors from all across the island and from every sector of business and society.

Now in its ninth year, the awards seek to showcase and reward excellence in innovation, across a wide spectrum. This year entries are invited in five categories covering: Life Sciences & Healthcare, IT & Fintech, Sustainability, Manufacturing & Design and New Frontiers. Entry to the awards is free and the closing date is June 29th. After the first-round judging, finalists will get to tell their stories of how they implemented their bright ideas and brought them to reality.

I’ve had the privilege of working on the awards since they started and I’ve met some amazing Irish entrepreneurs and inspiring innovators along the way. Some of their firms have fallen by the wayside since, victims of cut-throat corporate investors, the recession, or simple competition. Managing growth seems to be one of the most important areas where Irish start-ups need some advice and guidance, for it is in this phase that I’ve seen several great innovators come a cropper. But that should never overshadow the enormous achievement these people have made in bringing their idea to reality.

It’s easy to sit back and accept the claims that any attempt is futile. Similarly it’s naive to turn this around and suggest that every idea is a wise one, and every attempt to overcome the seemingly impossible will fail. But it’s always worth a shot.

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