Emergency Land Purchase to Save Imperiled Endemics in the Galápagos
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San Cristóbal Giant Tortoise eating cactus. Photo by Martin Schaefer.
In 1835, Charles Darwin arrived at the Galápagos Islands and over the course of five weeks discovered an astonishing diversity of unique species found nowhere else in the world. His observations, that began on the island of San Cristóbal, laid the groundwork for what is considered one of the most important scientific breakthroughs for mankind – the theory of evolution by natural selection.
The Galápagos archipelago is one of the most biologically outstanding areas on Earth with an extraordinary concentration of endemic wildlife, and it is recognized as an international conservation priority without equal. Much like Hawaii, this island chain has been formed by volcanic activity over millions of years. While the marine areas surrounding the islands are well protected, the terrestrial areas, especially the four islands on which humans reside – including San Cristóbal – are extremely vulnerable to development threats. With three extinct volcanoes dominating this island, its rich soils and lush montane vegetation have long attracted farming and settlements, such as the capital of the Galápagos province, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. San Cristóbal is dominated by private properties and land conservation has been unable to get a permanent footing to restrict development and remove invasive plants.
After surveys across the island, Rainforest Trust’s partner Fundacion Jocotoco discovered Woodpecker Finches (a species of Darwin’s finches) and a breeding population stronghold of Critically Endangered Galápagos Petrels, both of which have experienced drastic declines in recent years. The petrels burrow in the volcanic soils to nest, but are highly susceptible to the threat of habitat loss and introduced weeds. This includes non-native blackberry bushes, as petrels can get caught in the thickets when trying to fly to their nests at night. Tragically, searches for the San Cristóbal Vermilion Flycatcher failed to locate the species; as this bird was last seen in the 1980s, scientists fear it may be extinct.
To address the extinction crisis and protect the vulnerable species on San Cristóbal, our partner approached us about the imminent sale of a property slated for development. Rainforest Trust urgently seeks $1,752,746 to support our partner’s purchase of the 568-acre property to establish the Galápagos Nature Reserve, which will be the first private nature reserve in the archipelago. With this purchase and subsequent conservation efforts across the Galápagos, we will permanently secure one of the most unique, scientifically important and biologically outstanding areas on Earth.
Galápagos Petrel in flight. Photo by Lip Kee.
The Galápagos Islands are home to some of the highest levels of endemism anywhere on the planet, as over 80 percent of the land birds and 95 percent of the reptiles and terrestrial mammals are endemic.
Unfortunately, extinction is a very real concern across the archipelago. The San Cristóbal Vermilion Flycatcher is the first endemic bird species of the Galápagos thought to have gone extinct, as it was last seen in 1987. One of the most iconic creatures of the Galápagos Islands is the San Cristóbal Giant Tortoise, which is considered Vulnerable by the IUCN. Much like Lonesome George (the last Pinta Tortoise from the Galápagos Island of Santa Cruz who lost his life in 2012), these giant tortoises could become extinct if proper conservation efforts are not implemented now.
The proposed land purchase will protect key habitat for the Critically Endangered Galápagos Petrel and the Vulnerable Woodpecker Finch, two species endemic to the Galápagos Islands. The Galápagos Petrel nests primarily in rocky habitat along ravines that border dense Miconia and native fern cover. While the lower part of the property for sale contains invasive plant species, the upper portion contains pristine Miconia forest, representing quality habitat for the Galápagos Petrel that has plummeted in availability elsewhere on the archipelago.
Invasive Blackberry and Lantana plants. Photo by Martin Schaefer.
The main threats to endemic species in the Galápagos are habitat loss and a lack of protected areas with appropriate management to control invasive species. Traffic into the seaport and airport on San Cristóbal has introduced numerous exotic, invasive species, presenting significant challenges for native wildlife due to predation and competition. The introduction and spread of blackberries and West Indian Sage (Lantana camera) has altered much of the original Miconia forest on San Cristóbal with dense, thorny thickets that prevent the Galápagos Petrel from nesting. Introduced trees such as guava and livestock also modify habitat and contribute to the declining populations of native flora and fauna. On nearby Santa Cruz Island, livestock grazing and agriculture have altered almost all the Miconia forests, demonstrating the need for urgent conservation attention to mitigate these threats on San Cristóbal before it is too late.
In addition to the threats caused by invasive species, the human population is growing exponentially on the Galápagos Islands due to a substantial increase in job opportunities in the tourism sector. Despite new laws regulating human migration from mainland Ecuador, this population growth continues to put pressure on remaining space and natural resources, leading to encroachment of the remaining sensitive habitat. While ecotourism can provide numerous benefits, balancing the growing needs of the sector with conservation initiatives is vital for maintaining pristine habitats worthy of ecotourism.
Local resident of San Cristóbal volunteers at Eco-Center. Photo by Jocotoco.
As the second most populous island in the Galápagos, San Cristóbal is home to approximately 5,400 residents. The community members of San Cristóbal primarily work as fishermen, tourist operators and governmental employees. Our partner proposes to work with the local community to assist and manage an eco-volunteer program.
Eco-Center Kitchen and Dining Hall. Photo by Martin Schaefer.
Rainforest Trust urgently seeks $1,752,746 to support our partner’s purchase of a 568-acre property to establish the Galápagos Nature Reserve. Over a decade ago, a successful international eco-volunteer program was implemented on this property to control invasive species, restore native species and monitor endangered species. The owner is now selling the property for its development potential, and the eco-volunteer program – as well as the species that depend on this site – are at risk.
Our partner has negotiated the purchase of the property to save the area and permanently protect it. Rainforest Trust is supporting both the purchase of this property as well as the reimplementation of the volunteer program, including investing in the existing infrastructure to develop basic accommodation that will attract volunteers. Offering accommodation and research opportunities to paying volunteers can ensure the long-term sustainability of the protected area. Volunteers in the reserve will be important to restoring the site and conserving its threatened species. Work crews comprised of visiting volunteers will help control non-native, invasive plant species, trap non-native predators and monitor the Galápagos Petrel nesting population.
Rainforest Trust is committed to protecting the incredibly unique biodiversity of the Galápagos Islands through conservation partnerships, and this land purchase is just the beginning of a major effort to further protect the terrestrial flora and fauna of the archipelago.