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Saving the Galapagos means rebuilding nature

Conservation in Darwin's lab isn't about preservation – it's now an epic experiment in restoration.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Moises Velasquez-ManoffStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / April 19, 2009

Tortoises from Charles Darwin Foundation's captive breeding program feed on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Galápagos, Ecuador; and New York

Here, where three Pacific currents swirl together 600 miles from mainland Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands, a chain of dead and active volcanoes, rise from the sea. The archipelago is among the most biologically unique spots on Earth – nature's laboratory, the biologists' mecca that catalyzed Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection.

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Five centuries after Europeans first set foot here – and following successive waves of pirates, whalers, colonists, and tourists – the islands retain 95 percent of their native flora and fauna. But as the world celebrates the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of his "The Origin of Species," that triumph is tenuous.

Tourism has quadrupled in recent decades, and since 1991, immigrants seeking a better life have doubled the population. But the greatest threat to the Galápagos is plants and animals that people have brought. Newly arrived species often out-compete – or simply eat – native flora and fauna, driving them out of existence. Even a tiny mainland mosquito carrying disease has a huge domino effect.

Here, as in many other parts of the world, it's simply too late to set aside bits of land and sea and hope for the best. This isn't a "pristine" ecosystem. It's already radically altered by humans and their attendant goats, pigs, dogs, and rats.

Conservation here isn't so much setting an area off-limits, it's restoration – scrubbing the environment of what doesn't belong and rebuilding ecosystems to approximate their former selves.

CAN YOU REALLY put nature back together again? If anyone can, it's someone with the brash charm and frenetic energy of Felipe Cruz. A native Galápagan as addicted to his Blackberry as he is to the pull of the caves and nests he explored in his barefoot boyhood on Floreana Island, he already has revolutionized rat and goat eradication, a first step in rebuilding an ecosystem.

As the chief architect of Project Floreana – an unprecedented plan to restore a whole island ecosystem – he's an environmental Renaissance man. A director of the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), he's the go-to guy for international scientists – a trained biologist who speaks their technical language but seems unable to resist noting that "since I was 22 I have been the boss of gringos." He's a hands-on conservationist, boasting that Prince Philip of England personally consulted him about Buckingham Palace rats after hearing of his talent for eradication. He's also a Galápagos insider – among his 11 siblings are a former governor of the islands and a former Galápagos National Park director – respected up and down the social ladder of the island community, even if his job occasionally makes him a political target of everything from rioters' rocks to telephoned death threats.

Certainly, reconstructing nature is a prospect fraught with contradictions. Can it really be natural if it is created by human design?

Cruz and fellow conservationists operate on a simple formula: If an ecosystem is a community of life forms that have evolved together and achieved equilibrium, then the restoration of that ecosystem begins with the removal of everything that upsets the balance. And so, somewhat paradoxically, the conservation of Galápagan ecosystems inevitably starts with a meticulous campaign of eradication. Animals introduced by people must go. Once the slate is wiped clean, native species, some of which continue to exist only in captivity – like Lonesome George, the iconic giant tortoise who's the last of his breed – can be reintroduced. Then the community, a system of checks and balances honed to perfection over time – of grazing tortoises and plants, birds and seeds that need each other – can reestablish.