Waved Albatrosses are on the list of endangered Galapagos species. (Photo by Christin Weisenstein)
The endangered jewels of Galapagos
The majority of the information in this section is from: CDF, GNP and INGALA 2008. Galapagos Report 2006-2007. CDF, GNP and INGALA, Puerto Ayora, Galapagos, Ecuador
The Galapagos flora and fauna, including the lumbering giant tortoises, the brightly colored land iguanas, foot-high penguins, flightless cormorants, the amazing complex of Scalesia plants, and many others, are the jewels of the archipelago and the dominant attraction for visitors. The status of both native and endemic species is a key determinant of research and management programs of the Galapagos National Park (GNP) and the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF). The listing of species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which is continually updated to reflect both positive and negative changes in the flora and fauna of the world, provides an up-to-date assessment of the status of each species for use by conservationists and managers in prioritizing their work. The endemic species of Galapagos are of the greatest conservation interest because their future depends entirely on their continued existence in the islands.
While the number of species in an endangered category may change over time, the principal causes for extinction remain the same. They are:
Habitat loss and or/ fragmentation
Arrival of introduced species that are predators or disease vectors, or that compete for habitat or food
Introduction of agents of infection, via air or sea, that pose a major risk factor that could lead to extinction of species, as occurred in Hawaii with the introduction of avian malaria
Hunting, which although illegal in Galapagos can affect both reptiles and birds
Increased tourism (without precautionary measures), population growth, and political-economic pressures
Global warming and its large-scale impacts on natural processes
The number of threatened and endangered species in Galapagos continues to increase as human activity continues to impact the island ecosystems. The status as of 2006-07 is as indicated below.
Vertebrate Species. In Galapagos, 109 endemic and native vertebrate species have been recorded, of which 13 are considered Extinct. Seven of the extinct species are known from records of live specimens, while the other six are only known from the fossil record. The only species Extinct in the Wild is the giant land tortoise of Pinta, whose sole survivor is known as Lonesome George. The 95 extant species are listed as follows:
Critically Endangered – 7% – 3 reptiles (2 tortoises and 1 snake) and 4 birds (Mangrove finch, Galapagos petrel, Floreana mockingbird, and Galapagos albatross)
Endangered – 9% – 6 reptiles (2 snakes and 4 tortoises) and 3 birds (Flightless cormorant, Galapagos penguin, and San Cristóbal mockingbird)
Terrestrial invertebrate species. The evaluation of land invertebrates according to the IUCN Red List criteria was initiated in recent years, with the focus on endemic species. To date, the only groups evaluated are the Bulimulus land snails and the Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies). Of the 103 species evaluated, 2 are already Extinct, 26 are Critically Endangered, 9 are Endangered, 26 are Vulnerable, and 40 are apparently in no immediate danger of extinction. For all of these species, destruction and loss of habitat is the main threat. Many of them are especially sensitive to habitat alteration, which is prominent on the inhabited islands. Introduced species are the second greatest threat.
Plant species. The evaluation of the status of the flora of Galapagos has focused primarily on the 180 endemic species, given the large number of species and the importance of ensuring the survival of endemics. In 2006, a re-evaluation of the threat status of 171 species (the other 9 were considered Data Deficient) according to the categories of the IUCN showed that the number of threatened species is increasing. Of the 20 Critically Endangered species, all except 4 are restricted to the inhabited islands. The inhabited islands are undergoing severe ecological change and the primary threats are introduced species (especially goats and invasive plants) and habitat destruction or alteration. A comparison with the last evaluation in 2002 indicates a net movement of species from lower to higher threat categories. The current evaluation of 171 endemic plant species shows the following:
Extinct – 3 (2%)
Critically Endangered – 20 (12%)
Endangered – 26 (15%)
Vulnerable – 54 (32%)
Near Threatened – 13 (8%)
Least Concern – 55 (32%)
Marine species. Until recently, evaluation of marine species according to the IUCN Red List criteria focused on the more charismatic groups and those obviously impacted by human activity on a global scale, such as whales, pinnipeds, and more recently marine reptiles and sharks. In Galapagos, an evaluation of the many important subtidal, habitat-forming species, such as corals and macroalgae, was initiated in 2006 and a more inclusive fish evaluation in 2007. The primary threats to marine species are climatic events (especially strong El Niño events) and human activity (primarily overfishing). As of 2007, a total of 57 species were incorporated into the Red List (12 are considered Data Deficient). An additional 25 have been evaluated but the approval process for inclusion on the Red List has not yet been completed (includes 13 considered Critically Endangered, 3 Endangered, and 9 Vulnerable). The status of the 45 species on the Red List with sufficient data for categorization (includes 8 species included in the vertebrate list above) is as follows:
Extinct – 0
Critically Endangered – 3 (6%)
Endangered – 6 (13%)
Vulnerable – 14 (31%)
Near Threatened – 5 (11%)
Least Concern – 17 (38%)
Efforts to protect and restore endangered species
Since the establishment of the GNP and the CDF in 1959, efforts to protect and enhance populations of endangered native and endemic species have been on-going. Initial efforts were primarily aimed at the larger, more charismatic species such as giant tortoises. Protective fencing to exclude introduced goats and allow small areas of native vegetation to flourish was also begun in the early years. Key programs include:
Giant tortoises – breeding, rearing, and repatriation; nest protection in the wild (against pigs)
Land iguanas – breeding, rearing, and repatriation; cat control in nesting areas
Galapagos petrels – nest protection in the wild (against pigs, cats, and rats)
Flightless cormorants, Galapagos penguins, and flamingos – regular population censuses
Mangrove finch and Floreana mockingbird – new programs aimed at breeding, rearing, and repatriation
Endemic flora – protective fencing, eradication of introduced herbivores, reforestation
Current Initiatives to combat these problems: Ecosystem Restoration
While many of the species-specific programs have been ongoing, some for decades, both the GNP and the CDF are now focusing on ecosystem restoration as a way, not only of restoring disappearing ecological and evolutionary processes, but also of improving the status of many species at once. These programs are most often focused on entire islands. The Isabela Project (completed in 2006 and focused primarily on eradications of goats, pigs, and donkeys on Isabela and Santiago) was the first such project. Current projects include the Floreana Project, the Pinta Project, and the Pinzón Project. In general, the projects include eradication of invasive species, restoration of missing species (or their analog), and restoration of habitat.
A group of generous donors have offered to match every gift we receive by December 31st — up to $60,000! Every dollar you give today will go twice as far towards preserving the magnificent biodiversity of the Galapagos Islands.