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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Cruz isn't opposed – but wants proceeds and opportunity distributed evenly. "Shhhh," he says, laughing, when it's noted that his brother, standing nearby, has a small "monopoly" on Floreana, owning three of the nine cars permitted there and one of two hotels.Skip to next paragraph
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Project Floreana also aims to work with the locals, educating farmers on invasive plants and how to increase agricultural output so that the island is less import-dependent. Residents will have to neuter cats and weed gardens.
"The first thing you have to think about is people. [The influence of] invasives are a people problem," says Rachel Atkinson, a restoration coordinator at CDF. "Project Isabela was a big testing ground. This is the first time the human element is being tested."
It could be controversial, sparking sentiments that have flashed elsewhere.
"They care more about endemic plants than about us," says Mauricio Alban, a Floreana resident. He's referring to the national park and the CDF, which, although staffed primarily by Ecuadorians, is the gatekeeper for the international community here. For locals, that inspires a rash of nationalism, a feeling that Cruz, the self-described "ambassador" of the Galápagos, says he works to temper. "Some [locals] will say to me, 'Why are you bringing foreigners here? They will tell us what to do.' I say to them, 'They will not tell us what to do, They will tell us what they have done [that we can draw on]' "
ON A RECENT DAY ABOARD a boat hovering near Champion islet off Floreana, Cruz whistles: Two Floreana mockingbirds flutter atop a cactus. His sensitive side emerges as he climbs to the bow to snap photos. Wistfulness aside, he's deeply determined that the mockingbird, which he has seen three times in his life on Floreana – will fly there again.
Species reintroduction is the last piece of the process. Floreana has the smallest population of the four inhabited Galápagos islands – 120 residents. But it was the first to be colonized, in the 1830s, and scientists say it has the most ecosystem degradation. Its giant tortoises, mockingbirds, and other species no longer exist here. Scientists hope to introduce a related tortoise from Isabela, as well as the extinct Floreana racer snake.
With Lonesome George as sad sentinel, Cruz sees no reason to watch the same scenario play out on the archipelago, where 74 species are threatened. "We still have Lonesome George.... It's a pathetic thing that we are actually watching the extinction of that species."
Since Lonesome George, whose ancestors were butchered for food and oil, was found in 1971, scientists have furiously searched for others of his subspecies. Failing that, they've mated him with closely related subspecies. In 2008, one mate laid a clutch of eggs. But they were unfertilized. Today, the 90-year-old lazes in his corral of lava rock and cactus, in the CDF's captive breeding program – a predicament Cruz's "dirty work" aims to prevent for other creatures.
THIS TYPE OF PROJECT DOES raise a question: Isn't the art of ecorestoration just as intrusive as the human footprint itself?
Mr. Merlen, who's spent his life researching here, puts it this way: "Restoration is not seeking to create something different, but put something in order that once existed."
But Cruz is less interested in the fine points. Changing what he can is the goal: "I always feel that I am running behind time. I'm always asking myself, 'Are you doing everything you can to save Galápagos?' "
He's driven by something deeper, passed down from his father – who donated his Floreana home to be a school – and something Cruz wants to pass on to his own 12-year-old son. "The greater good," he calls it.
"We have to live with Damocles's sword on top of our heads that something is going to go wrong and that species are going to disappear here forever," he says. "I feel a big responsibility on my shoulders."