In a four-million-year-old land still being formed by active volcanoes, there are turtles as big as desks, vampire birds, and finches that use tools. The extraordinary Galapagos Islands, famous for inspiring Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, continue to fascinate the scientific community. Named a wildlife sanctuary in 1935, the Galapagos archipelago became a national park in 1959.
The Galapagos archipelago lies about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean. It is comprised of 19 islands, 42 islets, and more than 100 cays and encompasses more than 3,000 square terrestrial miles and over 52,000 square miles of marine areas, making it one of the five largest marine reserves in the world.
Although all the fauna of the Galapagos have ancestors on the mainland, the species have evolved in isolation for more than 4 million years, making the islands a paradise for unique species found nowhere else on Earth. These include 11 different giant tortoise species (each species residing on a different island), “vampire” finches, which evolved to include blood in their diets, Galapagos sea-lion, Galapagos hawk, Galapagos penguin, land iguana, marine iguana, and flightless cormorant.
The marine reserve, considered one of the most biologically rich areas in the Pacific, lodges hammerhead sharks, dolphins, sea turtles and whales, as well as invertebrate species such as sea cucumbers, lobsters, and the sea hedgehog.
Most of the terrestrial parts of the Galapagos are covered by xeric shrublands, a habitat type that is characterized by bushes and short and stubby trees and cacti. However, there are a few areas covered by more humid zones with plants such as the giant daisy, which is found nowhere else on Earth.
Why the Conservancy Works Here
The Galapagos Islands face one of the biggest global threats to biodiversity: invasive species. These non-native species, such as pigs, dogs, cats, rats, goats, donkeys and ants, have decimated entire populations of native fauna and flora species that beforehand had no natural predators. Aggressive plants such as quinine, guava, and blackberries have invaded natural areas and displaced native plants.
Furthermore, the unsustainable use of natural resources such as over-fishing, particularly of sharks, sea cucumbers and lobster for export to Asian markets, impacts the marine reserve. Likewise, increased human population growth on the islands also puts pressure on natural ecosystems.
What the Conservancy is Doing
The Conservancy has been supporting conservation in the Galapagos Islands since 1984. Recent conservation actions include:
Creating a Galapagos Tortoise Conservation Area: The Conservancy has developed a demonstration project on Santa Cruz Island that illustrates conservation-friendly land use practices in an area that harbors important natural pools where endangered giant tortoises refresh themselves during the dry summer season. The previous owner of the property had converted some of these pools into water reservoirs for cattle. The Conservancy and local partner Fundar Galapagos started restoration efforts by removing invasive elephant grass that chokes up the ponds. Decades of cattle ranching activities also destroyed many ponds as cattle eroded the banks and tracked mud into the shallow waters. Restoration efforts also include removing mud from the pools. Giant tortoises on the property are monitored daily. This information will help the Conservancy analyze the impact of improved habitat on the tortoise population. The Conservancy and Fundar have also started the construction of a training and research center on the property.
Cartography: The last time the Galapagos islands had been mapped was during the World War II era. Unfortunately, the maps were not accurate and showed an error of more than 600 yards at several locations. Cartography constitutes a key tool for conservation planning efforts and fulfills a great need by many stakeholders, from Ecuador's National Park Service to partner NGOs and local conservationists. Over the past year the Conservancy and its partner CLIRSEN have embarked on developing a map of invasive species in order to in order to determine where they are having the greatest impact and then determine the best strategies to reduce or eliminate their presence.
Support to local environmental leaders: The lack of a strong voice from local community groups to support Galapagos conservation has led the Conservancy to develop a leadership training and support program. Through the support of local leaders, the Conservancy hopes to foster increased conservation awareness in four key sectors of Galapagos’ society: fishers, tourism operators, youth groups and farmers.
The Conservancy plans to make its Galapagos activities a model for other projects in South America. Eradication of invasive species, strengthening marine protected areas, and developing strong and effective community outreach programs are relevant to many of the Conservancy’s programs and best practices developed here can be applied to other coastal communities.