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The Unwanted Animals of the Galapagos

Secondary Categories: Dig Deeper

When you think about the Galapagos you think about conservation. All those funny blue-footed boobies, naive baby sea lions, and prehistoric-looking land iguanas need our protection. A goldmine of diversity and endemic species, this Ecuadorian archipelago is treasured for its wildlife and prized for its preservation efforts.

So why have tens of thousands of animals living in the Galapagos been systematically slaughtered? Turns out not everyone is invited to the Galapagos party. Party crashers—you may know them as invasive species—threaten the native inhabitants, usually by clear cutting brush vegetation or by snacking on eggs and juvenile critters. And sad as it may be, in the Galapagos, some animals are more important than others.

Who is causing the most trouble as Galapagos invasive species? Goats. Pigs. Rats.

Goodbye Goats, Peace Out Pigs

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Photo - P Markham

Sailors and pirates introduced goats to the Galapagos in the 1800s, and pigs weren’t too far behind. Before long, the animals had a presence on several islands, even those not inhabited by people. In 1997, local organizations launched Project Isabella, designed to eradicate wild pigs and goats from the Galapagos. The plan incorporated several elements, such as teaching locals how to hunt using GPS systems and bringing in specialized aerial hunters from New Zealand to shoot from helicopters. For those sneaky goats that dodged the bullets, lust was the ultimate demise. Scientists released hormone-enhanced “Judas Goats” (goats equipped with trackers) to find the remaining individuals.

The 10-year project cost nearly $10.5 million dollars and removed pigs from Santiago Island and nearly 140,000 goats from multiple islands. Pulling the trigger on this project must have been difficult for conservationists, who had to use hard logic and long-term prognosis to justify the massive yet largely necessary extermination—though I’m sure the 140,000 goats felt differently.

With the removal of pigs and goats, habitats recovered and native species flourished. But there was still the rats.

The Rat Riddle

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Photo - Sergey Yeliseev

Rats present a puzzling predicament. They’re too small to hunt and you can’t simply dump rat poison on one of the most delicate and important ecosystems in the world. In 2007, as rats pushed the Pizon tortoise close to extinction, the Galapagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Research Center decided the issue needed to be tackled. They turned once again to New Zealand, an island nation used to combating invasive species; it holds the record for the largest successful rat eradication project ever. They came up with Project Pizon, designed remove rats from three islands: North Seymour, Rabida, and Pizon.

A Wisconsin-based rodent control company, Bell Laboratories, generously donated the poisoned pellets which were then colored blue because a study showed lizards and birds are least attracted to blue-colored bait. Rats, I suppose, don’t care what color their food is. Pre-studies also showed the poison did not kill lizards or small birds. The final step before spreading the poisoned pellets was catching and caging Galapagos hawks, since they would likely eat the sick rats and become ill themselves. (Read a detailed account of the rat project on Nature.)

The last pellet drop happened in November 2012 over Pizon Island. It’s still too early to tell if it was completely successful and if all the rats have been exterminated, but conservationists forge on in their war against invasive species. Ecuador has already committed several million dollars to a 2014 rat eradication project on the significantly larger island of Isabella.

An additional problem there: Isabella is one of four Galapagos Islands inhabited by humans—perhaps the most problematic species of all.

Keen to see Galapagos for yourself? Check out our Galapagos tours here or speak to one of our Destination Experts about crafting the bespoke vacation of your dreams. 

Thanks to Aaron Logan for the title image of this blog.

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