Protecting the fragile environment of the Galapagos islands is up to the government of Ecuador through the Galapagos National Park (which covers roughly 97% of the islands) and organizations like Island Conservation (islandconservation.org), which works on various islands across the globe to preserve unique and endemic (only found there) species.
The goal is to eliminate invasive species, which in the Galapagos means feral cats and rats, mice - all of which were transported to the islands by humans. None of the animals of the Galapagos have evolved to handle those threats, and cannot adapt quickly enough to combat them. In other words, humans and their baggage bring change too quickly and creatures on isolated island chains like the Galapagos are specifically adapted to those places (unlike say, Minnesota, where there is more room for ‘error’ due to predators & other mammals).
This means that while the 6th mass extinction we are in affects the whole planet, island chains (especially isolated ones like Galapagos and in the past Hawaii, etc.) bear the disproportionate burden of extinctions. “Islands are extremely important centers of biodiversity but also historically have been major centers of extinction.” explains Island Conservation activist Karl Campbell.
Island Conservation started on smaller islands in the Galapagos by doing careful risk management studies before trapping and poisoning rats. The rats, while not a direct threat to a marine iguana or tortoise, eat their eggs which causes population numbers to plummet or in some cases, become extinct in the wild altogether.
One of the important factors in the planning of this rodent eradication is identifying which native species could be impacted by, say, the rat poison. An obvious one was the Galapagos hawk , which may look much like a red tail hawk in Minnesota but is a different species and behaves very differently. The Galapagos have learned to eat the non-native rat as an alternative food source to their marine iguanas, etc.and would be impacted directly by poisoned rats.
Conservationists knew they had to keep in captivity as many hawks as possible temporarily while the program was carried out. They turned to the world experts: the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center (https://www.raptor.umn.edu) for help. While the raptor center hadn’t dealt specifically with the Galapagos hawk, they have dealt in the husbandry and medical aspects of many species of raptors around the world... not just our Minnesota variety. The Raptor Center worked carefully with Island Conservation in the planning and carrying out of the plans on various small islands one by one over the last eight years.
After the rat poison was gone the hawks were released successfully back into the wild . Because of these programs, species like the Pinzon Tortoise (a species specific to Pinzon Island in the Galapagos), once extinct in the wild, returned with success.
The next step comes on the island of Floreana. What’s significant about this island is that there is a small human population of roughly 100 people, which introduces the extra complications of balancing conservation and preservation with the needs of local farmers and tourism. The future goal is to expand onto more populated islands and bring the Galapagos hawk back to islands that they’re now extinct from. To read more about the future project in the works for Floreana Island, check out this link.
“The islands [of the Galapagos] are far more intact from their original ecosystem than most of our islands around the world.” explains Dr. Ponder, executive director of the U of M’s Raptor Center. To read more about the Raptor Center’s specific work in the Galapagos, you can go to the U of M website.
“The way I sometimes think of it, if we cannot preserve the Galapagos, then we can’t really do anything. I would definitely say that humans are the problem but also the potential solution.” Dr. Sehoya Cotner of the University of Minnesota tells me.