By Carlos Cano (Carlink), an Ecuadorian environmental engineer.
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Two years ago I had the pleasure of volunteering for three months with the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD), working at the San Cristóbal Tortoise Center. During my time there I heard and read stories of Park ranger expeditions in the field, but never thought I’d have the chance to experience one myself. However, thanks to a scholarship from the Organization of American States and the support of Galapagos Conservancy, I now have the privilege of doing field research in Galapagos for my Master of Science thesis at the National University of Costa Rica. Recently I had the opportunity to participate in field expeditions to Española and Santa Fe Islands and experience those Park ranger stories first-hand.
The expedition to Española Island was my first time in the field in this paradise. We experienced various difficulties: hiking on lava rock under a merciless sun while loaded down with 75-lb packs; going days with no shower due to a lack of water; stifling heat; losing the trail; gordito lunches (a mixture of dried milk, granola, oatmeal, gelatin, and water) — very popular with the park rangers and scientists in Galapagos — and camping and sleeping on hard rock surfaces. However, these “difficulties” were rewarded by having a pair of owls as nighttime neighbors and listening to the peculiar sound of the yellow-crowned night heron at dawn. Even more incredible was seeing all of the wildlife that abounds on the island: albatross, mockingbirds, and of course the giant tortoises, which were the reason for the expedition and the source of great emotion.
Our experience on Santa Fe Island differed due to greater amenities. Camped near the coast, we could bathe in the sea every day! Rough waters and a high tide made landing all of our equipment difficult and slow, which immediately tested the physical strength of all members of the expedition. In spite of bumps and bruises, the most important cargo, 5 young tortoises, arrived in perfect condition. We later released them at the study area.
Being part of the release team of these animals, along with volunteers, scientists, and Park rangers, gave me great satisfaction, as I was able to accomplish one of my goals in support of conservation of this natural World Heritage Site. While hiking across the island, I witnessed the interesting interaction between a land iguana and a giant tortoise, which were both feeding under the same cactus tree. During a lunch break, as I prepared my gordito while seated in the shade, I noticed several finches and a Galapagos hawk, all of which carefully watched my every movement — without a doubt one of the best lunches in the field.
I feel fortunate to be able to contribute to the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative. My project will help determine the diet of giant tortoises (Chelonoidis hoodensis) now living on Santa Fe, as well as that of the endemic Santa Fe land iguana (Conolophus pallidus). This will help establish the level of competition that exists between these two species, which share the same trophic niche, that of primary consumers (herbivores). Preliminary results, obtained through scat analysis, indicate that giant tortoises consume more plant species than the land iguanas.
Sharing this time and collaborating on data collection in the field with experts who are dedicated to conservation have made this experience enjoyable, informative, and definitely enriching.
Carlos Cano (Carlink), an Ecuadorian environmental engineer, worked as a volunteer for the Galapagos National Park Directorate in 2014. Currently he is collaborating with the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative while completing the research for his Master’s thesis in Conservation and Wildlife Management at the National University of Costa Rica. He is funded by a grant from the Organization of American States (OAS). Photos by Adrián Martín.