By Ros Cameron, Galapagos Conservancy Development Officer
When it comes to conservation in Galapagos, it can be easy to intellectually comprehend how things work — and a whole other story when it comes to implementing the strategies. The invasive giant African land snail, one of the world’s most destructive snail species, was introduced to Santa Cruz Island in the last decade. These snails pose an immediate threat to local agriculture as well as the survival of endemic Galapagos snails. Despite significant advances made in locating and eradicating this pest, the potential for a strong El Niño event and the accompanying heavy rains means that waterborne snail eggs could easily be spread to remote areas of the Galapagos National Park.
The Galapagos Biosecurity Agency (GBA) is reaching out to the local community to help identify, report and collect the snails as part of their Cero Caracoles (Zero Snails) campaign. That’s how I ended up in the back of a truck heading to the highlands one morning with a jovial group of GBA rangers on a snail hunt. Machetes in hand, we scoured the ground for hours, meticulously slashing away grass and turning over every rock and log across several acres to search for a creature camouflaged with the landscape. Calling it back-breaking doesn’t come close to the reality of these dedicated men and women, who conduct such searches daily.
I came away very impressed with the knowledge, commitment and zeal the rangers have for their work. For years they have spent their days’ hand clearing this snail from more than 50 acres. The vegetation is cut short in preparation for night-time hunting, which is when the snails are active and easier to identify. The night shift returns with torches and buckets to collect any remnant individuals. Hoping for “zero snails,” we only found 7 live snails in an area where the rangers told me that, only a couple of years ago, they were finding hundreds. Though probably preyed upon by a pesky introduced ant, finding empty shells was a joyous moment for the entire team.
Along for the adventure was naturalist guide Cindy Manning, keen to see the snail-sniffing dogs in action. Cindy had recently guided a visitor who supports the Texan service dog program that one of the dogs, named “Darwin,” came from, and was excited to finally meet this other famous Darwin. Seems he was too energetic to be a therapy dog, but that enthusiasm was just what was needed in Galapagos. Trained dogs can check large areas and over rough terrain — which is especially useful at night — to identify the presence of snails. Nothing has been invented yet that can compete with a dog’s nose! Although Galapagos Conservancy has been supporting a program through Dogs for Conservation to set up the sniffer dog project, I had yet to meet the rambunctious dogs Darwin and Neville and their handlers until now — and this brought it all into perspective.
GBA staff have been trained in the essentials of working with the dogs, including canine behavior and handling as well as scent theory — how dogs follow the flow of a scent to zero-in on its source. The dogs were resting up for a public event for Cero Caracoles that afternoon in town, but we got to play ball with them on our return home.
It’s hard to believe that a snail could do much harm, and even harder to comprehend the effort needed to deal with such a pest. My day out with the GBA snail eradication team certainly put into perspective the challenges when such a creature enters a vulnerable ecosystem. I am proud of Galapagos Conservancy’s collaboration with the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency and how my work contributes to their success. Next time you are in your garden or enjoying a local park, keep a thought for these rangers. Now every time I see an endemic snail, I reflect on the effort required to deal with unintended consequences that could irrevocably change the face of my Galapagos home, if it were not for the daily efforts behind-the-scenes to keep the Islands safe.
Ros Cameron is a Development Officer for Galapagos Conservancy and long-time resident of Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island in Galapagos.