Saving the Galapagos means rebuilding nature
Conservation in Darwin's lab isn't about preservation – it's now an epic experiment in restoration.
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The wildcard: that other invasive species – Homo sapiens. How to prevent people – residents seeking a livelihood and outsiders seeking adventure – from undoing a Herculean undertaking. How to balance humanity's day-to-day needs with the existence of living things found nowhere else on Earth.Skip to next paragraph
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"What we need is holistic island restoration, here and in islands around the world," explains Cruz. "We want to learn how to do this properly here and then scale it up to ... the rest of the world."
Restoration is daily work in the Galápagos. Park rangers do constant battle poisoning rats and fumigating plants that strangle native flora. But the Floreana Project, sponsored by the CDF, the Galápagos National Park Service, and other partners, takes restoration to a new scale: an unprecedented islandwide approach. That means ridding the entire 67-square-mile island of invasives, reintroducing species, and bringing locals on board.
Floreana will never be the island of Cruz's childhood, but if its biodiversity isn't restored now, he says, it will be lost forever.
CRUZ'S PARENTS MIGRATED from mainland Ecuador, settling on Floreana in the 1940s after finding nearby San Cristobal Island too crowded (it had 300 people). On Floreana they farmed – lemons, pineapples, corn, papayas – and raised a family in the wholesome isolation of nature that captured Cruz's imagination. His father read Kafka and Shakespeare aloud and told his own tales – including the story of the extinction of the dodo bird.
In early signs of his quixotic pursuit of "the impossible," Cruz refused to believe the flightless pigeon (never a Galápagos resident) was extinct, and with a child's naiveté set out to find the bird in the crevices across the island. Instead, he discovered the nests of the endangered Galápagos petrel, a tube-nosed seabird. Camping atop Cerro Pajas – Bird Hill, the highest point on Floreana, at 2,000 feet – the young Cruz would fall asleep to the purring sounds of petrels in their nests among the rocks. It was the background music to an obsession that led him to study biology at university in Quito.
Cruz embraced restoration early: "I realized that in order to save my birds, I was not going to help them by being a scientist. I needed to get rid of the lizards, rats, and dogs. I had to do the dirty work."
A benign presence elsewhere, here goats denude entire islands. Pigs and rats eat bird eggs and nestlings. Feral cats prey on marine iguanas. There are 1,200 plants in Galápagos; only 500 are native. The most innocuous American backwoods species – think blackberries – are major threats here.
"[The effect of] introduced species is very real and very dramatic," explains Godfrey Merlen, a longtime Galápagos conservationist. "There is no issue more important than introduced species. It will decide the fate of the Galápagos."
One victim of invasives is the Floreana mockingbird, a subspecies Darwin collected and pondered in his questioning of the immutability of species. One of the rarest birds in the world, it was extirpated from Floreana – only 470 survive on two nearby islets. Its demise is directly traced to rats and feral cats as well as to goats and nonnative plants that destroy or overtake habitat. With fewer mockingbirds dispersing cactus seeds, fewer cacti grow.
The Galápagos National Park, the CDF, and others have logged major successes against invasives. Cruz oversaw the eradication of 62,818 goats on Isabela Island between 2004 and 2006. Lauded as the largest mammal eradication in history, Project Isabela perfected a process – using sharpshooters in helicopters and the release into the wild of sterile goats – likely to be adopted elsewhere.