SCIENCE; A hit squad to save Darwin's paradise isles

Juliette Dominguez reports on a plan to kill off the eco-invaders that are threatening to destroy the Galapagos

When Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands in 1853, he wrote: "I cannot find a spot free from the iguana's burrows on which to pitch a single tent." Today, the giant land iguana is extinct, and the island's indigenous wildlife is under the threat of extinction from the feral animals and plants introduced by humans over the centuries.

This month, a conservation "hit squad" will visit the Galapagos Islands to try and save their unique wildlife by eradicating the invasive species. Julian Fitter, chairman of the Galapagos Conservation Trust, said: "Unless something immediate and drastic is done, there will be nothing left of the island's endemic plants and animals. The land is being grazed away to nothing."

The Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, are invaluable in providing the world with a living laboratory of evolution. Darwin was the first of many scientists to study the unique ecosystem, where biology and geology have gone to bizarre and wonderful extremes.

There are 15 main islands and 106 smaller ones, created by volcanic eruptions out of the ocean some 3 million years ago. There are active volcanoes there even today. Because the chain of islands was never attached to any other land mass, all the resident species are descended from ones that flew, swam, drifted or were carried there.

Ninety-five per cent of the reptiles, 50 per cent of the birds, 42 per cent of the land plants, 80 per cent of the insects and 17 per cent of the fish cannot be found anywhere else in the world. They include the Galapagos tortoises, marine iguanas, flightless cormorants, blue- and red-footed boobies and 13 species of Darwin's finch, whose variously shaped beaks were used to illustrate his theory of evolution.

The threat to these endemic species comes from overgrazing by goats that have run wild, and from non-native predators, such as rats, killing the defenceless indigenous animals.

Alcedo Volcano on Isabela Island is home to more than a third of all Galapagos giant tortoises. It faces ecological collapse as a result of an infestation of goats and burros. The enormous goat population, numbering more than 80,000, is eating the vegetation the tortoises depend on, and they cannot compete.

Dogs have eaten most of the land iguanas, and black rats have discovered how to chew through the shells of baby tortoises, which are soft until they are about three years old.

On the neighbouring island of Santiago, conservationists at the Darwin Research Station say all the endemic plants and most of the unique animals could be wiped out in five years by goats and pigs. For example, Scalesia trees, which look like giant sunflowers, until recently formed an entire forest across the island. These have been devastated by goats, leaving only a few sparse clifftop clumps. And pigs have developed a taste for the world's rarest seabirds, the dark-rumped petrel. The pigs can smell out the petrels' burrows and kill them easily when they surface, as they are too clumsy to escape.

The Galapagos National Park has had some success ineradicating goats from the smaller islands, like Santa Fe, Espanola and Pinta, but the problem on the larger islands like Alcedo is now unmanageable. Simple hunting techniques are no longer effective, as the goats are reproducing so rapidly the rangers cannot keep up, and the situation is out of control.

Mr Fitter explains that with these numbers, you need to destroy them rapidly before they get a chance to reproduce.

The Galapagos Conservation Trust has asked Brian Bell to examine the problems facing Isabela and Alcedo. Mr Bell, an expert on the eradication of invasive or introduced species, is the managing director of Wildlife Management International, a small private company established to make available to other countries New Zealand's expertise in island management.

His company has been asked to undertake projects by governments and agencies such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and Birdlife International. One of his recent projects was eradicating brown rats and black-naped hares from Gunners Quoin in Mauritius last September.

Mr Bell explains that cleaning up islands requires the investment of many resources and much time and money. He says: "I don't enjoy killing, but I accept it as an essential way of preserving rare forms of life. People get uptight about what they see as cruelty to animals, but they don't know how harsh nature is. Look at seabirds - most of them die in their first year due to lack of food. It's sad, but if they all survived we'd be overrun by birds."

Mr Bell is visiting the islands this month for three weeks, and his report will ascertain howbest to carry out the eradication and what methods to employ.

Julian Fitter says: "One possible recommendation is the use of helicopters as a vehicle to shoot the goats from. This has the advantage that the goats cannot get away, and the terrain and vegetation will not impede in the same way as a ground operation. With luck, once Brian and I have discussed his report, we can implement the programme in November."

Mr Fitter adds: "I have high hopes for the future of the Galapagos - it is a priceless jewel that must be preserved, not just for the rest of the world to come and visit or study, but because it is of incomparable economic value to Ecuador. If Ecuador loses its unique wildlife and tourists no longer visit Galapagos, then the whole Ecuadorian tourism industry will suffer."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins win the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor