Lonesome George was the last of his kind when he died on June 24th earlier this year. I was in Galapagos and remember seeing a local café put a hand-lettered sign out that Sunday morning saying, “Today we have witnessed extinction.” This was powerful language for a resident population that had not been uniformly strong about conservation. But that day, we all knew what losing George meant. A species was lost “on our watch,” and we needed to resolve that this would be the last.
For 50 years, conservation in Galapagos followed what I would call a “silo” mentality. It was species driven, population driven, and the science behind it — at least at the Research Station — was very compartmentalized. Over the years, as conservation management evolved, the concept of ecosystem restoration took a stronger hold. It would be a stretch to link this evolution in thinking to George, but it is true that as the likelihood of George’s natural reproduction ebbed, and conversations about cloning came and went, the virtue of looking at the health of whole systems, rather than an individual or a particular species, made sense.
It is fitting then that we contemplate the dramatic and very positive steps that science for conservation has taken in Galapagos over the last twenty years. Emerging from the larger Project Isabela, Project Pinta sought to bring back an island-wide ecosystem balance between plants and native herbivores. With the last Pinta tortoise removed from Pinta, the Galapagos National Park Service, after long debate and informed by good science, placed sterilized hybrid tortoises on Pinta in 2010 with the plan to add a reproductive population once it was confirmed that the resident population was thriving. What science was to learn from concurrent genetic work, funded in part by Galapagos Conservancy, was that Wolf Volcano on the island of Isabela had some tortoises with Pinta ancestry. The potential yet exists to form a Pinta breeding program over the next decade. Wolf Volcano turned out also to be the home of even more Floreana hybrids, long thought to be extinct in the archipelago.
Not only has genetic work changed conservation dynamics, but advances in other technologies have changed the way we do island-wide eradications. Along with strong science on the management of target and non-target species, restoration efforts to eradicate introduced rodents will move forward this November on Pinzón Island and Plaza Sur. Deploying rat bait by helicopter, using techniques forged during Project Isabela, Pinzón will be the largest island in Galapagos from which rats will be eliminated, and its native tortoise and bird populations will once again thrive in the absence of introduced predators.
The challenges in Galapagos are real. The threats posed by the introduction of plants, animals, and pathogens pose an almost insurmountable problem. But with the collective work of the international scientific community, the academic community, the government of Ecuador, the Charles Darwin Foundation, focused NGOs such as Galapagos Conservancy and local organizations willing to push for stringent conservation measures, we stand an excellent chance of protecting this extraordinary place. Lonesome George’s legacy will live on.