by Josie Hollingsworth
Helicopters whirred over a herd of goats braying and cantering inside the world’s widest active volcano crater. Automatic weapons targeted the mammals that had turned lush highlands to desert, plunging a fragile ecosystem into jeopardy. Giant tortoises, those iconic and lovable reptiles only found on the Galapagos Islands, had long been taken into captivity because of the denuded landscape. Now reparations were being made.
It was 2005. A mass eradication plan for Isabela Island had been enacted as an attempt to restore ecological balance. Threat number 1 : Goats. The strategy was ground and aerial hunting. In just two years this led to the killing of 62,818 goats. About 4,500 goats were later removed through the use of sterilization and ground sweeps, according to a Galapagos Conservancy report.
Giant tortoises have other predators on the islands. In February 2013, a rat extermination on Pinzon attempted to combat the 10 rats per square meter of the 7 square miles of island. The Galapagos Conservancy, partnering with the Galapagos National Park and Wild AID, was successful in dispersing a poison targeting the 180 million non-native rodents on Pinzon.
Eight years after Project Isabela, Guido Gil has decided to take a different approach to combating another type of invaders. Once a worker of the state, Gil now fights an insurgency on his own land.
“Here, we have implemented manual control.”
With the help of his brother, Danny, Gil spends a lot of his day with a weed eater in the highlands. Of course, these invaders aren’t human, but nonnative flora and fauna.
Invasive species are now and have been the major challenges in the Galapagos. These invaders are the question on everyone’s minds – from the tourist operators to the local business owners. If plants and animals continue being introduced at this rate, how will Darwin’s evolutionary paradise look without the iconic plants and animals that proved his theory and our basis of existence?
The islands have around 1,500 species of native flora and 500 types of native fauna. Nevertheless, researchers have determined that, in the past five years, a change has happened and non-native, introduced species have outpaced natives.
Although just a slight tip of the balance, this brings a monumental change to the Galapagos. More “continent” than “island” has become the norm in Darwin’s cradle of evolution.
Gil, 39, dedicates his time to the production of milk, meat, and fruits on his family farm in the highlands of Isabela. He says every day is a new battle against a plant called guayaba, the common guava.
Gil fears the introduction of new, nonnative plants, like the hill raspberry, to the Galapagos would be the tipping point that will make his home and neighboring properties inaccessible.
Gil’s country home overlooks the lush pastureland and banana fields typical of the Isabelenan highlands.
“It is a call to move the focus to a forgotten sector, the agricultural sector,” Gil says.
While he feels that his job as an auditor for the National Park was important, Gil has found his calling raising plants and animals on his family’s land. Gil shifts his stance on flip-flopped feet. He doesn’t look 39 – maybe a spritely 26.
“I feel a place here in my life, in my heart, for the conservation of native, endemic species from the Galapagos Archipelago,” Gil says with his warm smile.
He has lived on the island his entire life and his family has been here for five generations. The Gils are one of the iconic families of Isabela.
Gil believes that “institutions,” what he calls nonprofits, governmental branches, and other aid groups, shouldn’t forget their mission to protect the Galapagos Islands. While their current work is beneficial, Gil believes that it is misdirected at the 97% of island land that is designated to parkland and completely misses the most important areas – the populated ones.
“That is where we have introduced plants,” Gil said, referring to the location of invasives on the island.
On the docks of Santa Cruz, the most populated island, a once-remote port has become a congested intersection of tourism, fishing and locals. Sea lions bark as tourists snap photos of fisherman and pelicans at a fish market.
Godfrey Merlen sits by Pelican Bay, his laid back pocket t-shirt and wiry white braid a testament to a life of sunny boat rides and tenacious conservation work.
Merlen, acclaimed researcher and a resident of the island since 1962, has seen the extent of this change and its effects on the native species around his home of Puerto Ayora, a town in Santa Cruz.
“[On the Galapagos] you have a unique opportunity to see into the world of adaptation and how a species can modify its form in order to create new species,” Merlen says.
According to Merlen, while preservation of the islands is important, their relatively young and extremely isolated nature makes the study of biodiversity simplified and important.
Even the islands themselves have stark differences from one another, mainly due to plate tectonics and the age of the soil on various islands. The islands were created in order of east to west due to the hot spot on the Pacific Ocean plate. Of the major islands, San Cristobal came first (2.4 million years ago) then Santa Cruz (1.5 million years ago) then Isabela last (700,000 years ago). To the east of San Cristobal there have been other Galapagos Islands that are now called volcanic mounds.
This geology has created vastly differing species on the islands due to soil type and time for species diversification. For example, introduced mora (hill raspberry) grows like wildfire in the highlands of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal’s finer soil, but it doesn’t take as well to Isabela’s more recently created volcanic soil.
While giant tortoises were threatened by goats’ consumption of vegetation on Isabela, tortoise reproduction was threatened by rats eating their eggs on Pinzon island. The population of Galapagos giant tortoises declined from 250,000 to 3,060 between 1536 and 1974.
Merlen moved to the Galapagos because there was a natural balance of species rather than “a country where everything is based around man’s benefit.”
In 1970 there were about 2,000 residents on the islands with about 1,000 tourists coming to visit each year.
“Many years ago, people working in conservation were concerned that too many people were coming to the Galapagos,” Merlen said.
“I can remember there was a hot debate when there were 25,000 tourists and another debate when there were 100,000 people and now we’re approaching 200,000 people and still there’s no sign of change.”
Merlen looks down upon “anything that pushes ecosystems into peril” and he sees tourism and its infrastructure (labor, materials, waste) as factors that contribute to the risk of invasive species.
“The one thing that will allow Galapagos to live or die is biosecurity,” Merlen said.
Almost 3,000 miles away from the archipelago, UNC-Chapel Hill Professor Stephen Walsh contemplates these same questions.
“One of the issues is how do the invasives get there,” Walsh says. “Invasives can come over as incidental, accidental seeds that come over in ships or by birds.“
Walsh also mentioned that the people that work and live in the highlands have historically brought over plants that they are accustomed to from their homes on the mainland.
“That’s how guava [guayaba] came over. People wanted jams and jellies and fruits that they had long enjoyed on the mainland,” Walsh says. The fierce guava plant is one of these.
The cargo ships – that supply everything on the island from paper napkins to cement– are principal transporters of invasive species.
“Anything that gets in the hull of ships, from mice and rats, to bugs, to seeds, run the risk of making landfall in the Galapagos. So that’s an accidental hitchhiker,” Walsh says.
While “accidental hitchhiker” mice are reminiscent of a cute movie like “The Borrowers,” the reality of invasive rodents is that of seemingly uncontrollable predators. For example, black rats provide a serious threat to the eggs of the iconic Galapagos giant tortoise. Domestic house cats kill and eat endemic lava lizards. Nile Tilapia are foreign, omnivores who destroy the freshwater lagoons and lakes on San Cristobal.
James Gibbs sits in one of the National Park offices on Santa Cruz, the air conditioner temporarily turned off to let in the afternoon sea breeze. A veteran visiting scholar to the National Park from State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Gibbs marvels at the preservation that exists on the islands in comparison to other island groups.
“The US has had possession of Hawaii and it’s an ecological disaster ,” Gibbs said. He believes Ecuador has diligently maintained the Galapagos Islands’ biodiversity.
“I find it very interesting that the US tried to basically buy the Galapagos twice historically, and if they had, where would we be today?” Gibbs says. “All that infrastructural investment is not necessarily a good thing.”
When it comes to island groups retaining native species, Galapagos is fairly well off. Maybe, in fact, the best off archipelago worldwide. Ninety-five percent of the island’s native species still live wild in the Galapagos. The islands have around 1,500 species of native flora and 500 types of native fauna. Nevertheless, researchers have determined that, in the past five years, a change has happened and now there are more non-native, introduced species than native species.
The Galapagos Islands not only have maintained most of their original species but can also boast the place where scientific research on evolution began with Charles Darwin in 1832.
Merlen sees the Galapagos Archipelago as extremely special because of its “basic completeness.” Merlen feels that these systems still fundamentally exist on the islands and thus, the growing number of invasive species are disrupting the living laboratory that exists there.
Mireya Rogel, a resident of Isabela for 28 years, is the leader of a local women’s organization called OMAI (Organizacion Mujeres de Accion Isabela) which, among other things, produces jam made from non-native fruits. The program is based in a small town in the highlands where Mireya saw an abundance of fresh, organic fruit that many farmers’ wives had unsuccessfully tried to sell to local restaurants and on other islands.
“This fruit has always been considered a plague to the islands,” Rogel says as she straightens jars in her small shop.
One answer was jam – a non-perishable good that could be sold to locals and tourists. When the project started in 2003, it didn’t have much following because it was considered too sweet to foreigners and didn’t have the adequate machinery to seal the jam from humidity.
That’s when Gary Jenanyan and Lindblad Expeditions come in. Marketed as an eco-friendly cruiseline, Lindblad is in partnership with National Geographic. Jenanyan, the executive chef for the ships that go to the Americas and has visited the islands over 80 times through his work.
“They called me in because, well, I’m the food guy,” Jenanyan says.
In partnership with AeroGal Airlines and Goddard Catering Group from Quito and Guayaquil, Lindblad began direct work with invasive species projects on July 5, 2009.
People had come to Jenanyan before wanting to make brandy from the out-of-control “mora” or wild raspberry on islands like Santa Cruz and San Cristobal.
“In other words, you take a plague and turn it into a profit center,” Jenanyan said.
Lindblad has also been a part of a different project to help protect the islands against invasive microorganisms called the OPUS clean potato project (Operation to Prevent Unwanted Species). Seventy-five percent of what all cruise operators buy from the mainland could have microorganisms like crop or food pestilences that disrupt the Galapagos ecosystem or native crops on the islands. Other vegetables are believed to have brought the noxious avocado plague that destroyed most of the Galapagos avocado production for years.
Many believe, including Lindlblad Expeditions and Jenanyan, that the papachoa [potato] is the vehicle upon which most of the invasive species come from mainland to Galapagos. As the staple starch in most food, it is estimated that the average adult Ecuadorian needs 25 pounds of potatoes a month.
According to Jenanyan, the OPUS project began when Godfrey Merlen spoke at a conference in Puerto Ayora and explained the pressing concern of invasive speices. Lindblad and others rose to the occasion.
The OPUS process is a system to wash, sanitize, dry, and vacuum-pack vegetables then place them in insulated refrigerated containers. Transport is from Quito, by airplane, directly to the Baltra Airport in Galapagos and then aboard the Lindblad ships.
Jenanyan says OPUS also has plans to open an air-tight packaging center within the Guayaquil clean airport. Lindblad’s continued support of both the OPUS potato project and OMAI’s jam project represents the small-scale combat against invasive species.
Back in Chapel Hill, Professor Walsh, like Guido Gil, also feels that the Park is somewhat misguided in its focus.
“You don’t wait till the enemy is at the gates to do something.”
No one argues that the points of entry of invasive species are the port cities. By definition, a port city is a place that receives foreign goods and people – for good or for bad.
As Director for the UNC Center for Galapagos Studies since 2009, Walsh has seen the impact, or lack of impact, that various institutions have had on protecting against invasive species. Walsh believes that the park boundary should be a buffer zone where a program could be set up to attack invasive species within the populated areas.
Walsh says the park should create community-based projects that help farmers understand the importance of eradication, if not from a purely economic standpoint. He believes that without arable land, the hope for a Galapagos not dependent on cargo ships is impossible. Crops grown locally don’t present the threat of potential pathogens to biodiversity. No one argues that the points of entry of invasive species are the port cities. By definition, a port city is a place that receives foreign goods and people – for good or for bad.
“It all depends on the quarantine system,” James Gibbs said. His three decades of experience on the islands means he has seen the full-range of invasive species work – from nearly untainted ecosystems, to eradication, to prevention.
Mireya Rogel says she doesn’t own dogs anymore.
She is sewing stuffed toy blue-footed boobie to sell in her shop, adjacent to Hotel Delphin, a building she co-owns with her husband, Caiza. She works the sewing machine while her friend Francisca does details on the wings and nods in agreement every now and then.
“It could have been the park, the municipal government, or the center for disease control. This is not the way to control things. It’s not the animal’s fault.”
A few months ago there was an authority crack-down on dogs. These programs are considered routine in the Galapagos, a place where the authorities value the ecosystem over individual or business rights.
The reality of the situation is that dogs and cats, lovable as they are, provide a serious threat to native species like lava lizards on the Galapagos. Their transport to the islands: humans.
“In some sense we’re the ultimate invasive species,” SUNY researcher James Gibbs said.
Human invasion occurred before humans resided permanently on the island. Pirates left a few goats on the islands during the 17th century as a food source when ships ran ashore from time to time. The real point of no return was when the first settlers began to build permanent homes in the 19th century. From there, it has been a continued conglomeration of introduced species that have had seriously detrimental impacts on the islands.
“Humans are definitely responsible for invasive species. Of that there’s no question,” Merlen says. He also asserts that humans aren’t going anywhere.
“We’re all colonizing somewhere; we’re never going back,” Gibbs says.
According to Walsh, many of the connections to the islands happen between social networks. Someone from Guayaquil immigrates to the Galapagos then invites a sister, cousin or brother to take advantage of Galapagos work opportunities in tourism .
“There are all kinds of social networks that bring people to the islands,” Walsh says.
While all the residents of the Galapagos have a story as to how they arrived, for many of the introduced plants and animals, that story is muddled.
SICGAL (Galapagos System for Inspection and Quarantine) is at the forefront of these port-driven invasions. Danny Gil, a supervisor for SICGAL and brother of Guido, spends his mornings on the Puerto Villamil dock checking the bags of people as they come and go from Isabela Island.
Gil later said, despite tireless efforts by organizations like SICGAL, that the fragile nature of the Galapagos is simply too susceptible to invasive species.
“Now it is up to the consciousness of the community and the support of all to take care of our home,” Danny Gil said.
Tourists pay $10 US dollars for a taxi into the terrestrial equivalent of the Garden of Eden. Past the all-natural architecture and into the lush clearing, a visitor to Campo Duro doesn’t know what to make of all the exotic plants, the seven different types of banana or the rescue pen of giant tortoises running right along the path.
The advent of ecotourism is an intersection of tourism and preservation that would not be possible without controlling invasive species. Wilfredo Michuy and his wife Janet are important stakeholders in the invasive species game. Their grounds lie between the coastal and volcanic climate zones, meaning an ease of growing bananas, coffee, avocadoes, papaya, passionfruit, pineapple, citrus fruits among others. While these are all introduced species, things like Guayaba and Maracuya (passionfruit) directly threaten the important native plants and animals on Michuy’s land.
Michuy’s business represents a new type of tourism that may be the hope for combating invasive species on Isabela. If the highlands are treated as a tourist destination, their protection from guayaba and other invasives will be necessary – maybe even with economic benefit for everyone.
“For me and my family, this is a sustainable way to live,” Michuy said. “Actually we live thanks to this business.”
“In my opinion, the National Park of Galapagos makes some contributions,” Michuy says. “Well, at least we hope these species don’t invade more places.”
Mireya Rogel, community leader and highlands farm owner, is not so optimistic.
“The park doesn’t care. They try to say it [invasive species] isn’t a problem but it is a problem. There are places on Isabela were there is mora and the park knows but it’s not something they care much about,” Rogel says.
“What they [the park] care about is recovering the most money possible,” Rogel says.
According to public opinion polls, the popularity of the Galapagos National Park rises and falls, one of the main criticisms being its failure to work on the community level. At UNC’s Center for Galapagos Studies, postdoctoral researcher Laura Brewington says that residents find the park organization “too political and bureaucratic.”
Whatever the future of invasive species, it is clear is that there is no “quick fix” solution. While the islands may be geographically young, their flora and fauna are not.
To understand the timescale of something like this, Merlen described the introduction of the endemic animals. Marine iguanas arrived 11 million years ago, then giant tortoises were probably next between 6-12 million years ago. The finches came to the islands about 2.3 million years ago.
“The process of building ecosystems is not an overnight affair and it’s been a very very very slow one,” Merlen says.
He believes that the same should be true for any new introduction.
“We don’t seem to quite get the message that these giant tortoises have not been in the system for a few moments. The more we know what it took to build these ecosystems, the more we should respect them,” Godfrey said.
A brutal mix of natural processes, human actions and failure to act has made a perfect storm in which invasive species can expand and thrive. The obvious victims of invasion are the species upon which Galapagos gained its fame. Giant tortoises’ environments are threatened in more than one way throughout the islands, whether it’s rodents or competition for vegetation. Red fire ants threaten the iconic Darwin Finches and their young.
Along with climate, the soil of Isabela, the most isolated of the populated islands, will become more fertile and susceptible to foreign growth with time. This phenomenon can be seen on older islands like Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. While Isabela is currently a relatively young island, its volcanic soil will diversify in nutrients, thus providing more available natural resources to foreign, diverse plants.
And the problem grows unimaginably large. The numbers of marine invasives like non-native algae go unrecorded yet threaten distinctive Galapagos marine environments. Heightened boat travel and transit between the islands and the mainland also contributes to this introduction. Naturalists will point to animal and plant victims before their homosapien counterparts. Microbes and other diseases arriving on cargo boats could provide a serious threat for some Galapagos residents and visitors. But introduced plants and animals provide an indirect, potentially more serious threat to people on the islands. Native species, the main tourist attraction of the islands, is income source for a large majority of residents.
“There will be conflict, a problem for the native and endemic species here in the Galapagos,” Gil says as he walks past the chickens in the yard in front of his home.
“So now we have to unite forcefully and try, in a team, to control these types of invasive species.”