January 15, 2012
It was immortalised by the novelist Alexandre Dumas as the location for a stash of buried treasure, but the tiny Italian island of Montecristo is now struggling with a rather less romantic reality – a plague of black rats.
The uninhabited island, a protected nature reserve lying between the coast of Tuscany and Corsica, has been invaded by thousands of black rats.
The rodents are believed to have arrived on the four-square-mile island as stowaways on boats a few years ago but have now multiplied.
Authorities are planning to use aircraft to bombard the island with poison pellets in a bid to tackle the infestation.
The plan is to drop around 26 tonnes of pellets on the island at the end of this month.
Biologists estimate that there is one rat for every square yard of the island and say they pose a grave threat to the ecology of the nature reserve, which is part of a scattered archipelago of islands off Tuscany.
Some conservationists are worried, however, that the pellets could accidentally land in the sea, killing fish and other marine life.
They say they could also pose a danger to the 1,000 tourists who are allowed to visit the nature reserve each year, under a tightly-controlled permit system.
But the authorities have dismissed those concerns. "No one wants to poison the island," Franca Zanichelli, the director of the national park authority, told Corriere della Sera.
"The project will be managed by experts. The poison pellets are similar to those used everywhere to kill rats."
The pellets will have to be dropped from the air because the island is too rugged for them to be distributed by land.
Similar operations on the nearby island of Giannutri and in Sardinia had been a success, Ms Zanichelli said.
Similar eradication attempts have been attempted on islands in New Zealand, where rats threaten native flightless birds such as the kiwi, and on islands in the South Atlantic, which are home to tens of thousands of seabirds.
Dumas visited the island in 1842 and chose it as the setting for his novel, The Count of Monte Cristo.
His hero, Edmond Dantes, is wrongfully sent to jail, where he befriends a fellow inmate who tells him that there is a trove of treasure on Montecristo.
He finds the treasure, buys himself the title of Count of Montecristo, and proceeds to exact revenge on the men who framed him as a traitor.
Dumas was inspired by stories of two 16th century pirates, Dragut and Red Beard, who supposedly buried their haul somewhere on the island.