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Waved Albatross on Española Island, June 2021 - © Joshua Vela
In June, a team of researchers and rangers from Galápagos Conservancy and the Galápagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) traveled to Española Island in the extreme southeast of the Archipelago to monitor populations of the critically endangered Waved Albatross and to check in on the health of the Española Giant Tortoises. We hope you’ll enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at the expedition with Galápagos Conservancy Director of Conservation Washington Tapia and Galápagos Conservancy Conservation Manager Jorge Carrión.
WHAT MAKES THE LANDSCAPE, ECOLOGY, AND WILDLIFE
OF ESPAÑOLA UNIQUE?
Washington Tapia, Galápagos Conservancy Director of Conservation: Everything about Española Island is unique. It’s small, flat, arid, and one of the oldest in Galápagos. Most of its plants and animals are endemic with the peculiarity that many species, such as the Opuntia Cactus and Lava Lizard, are comparatively bigger here than other islands. The rugged coastal cliffs, as well as being visually impressive, also provide the only site in the Archipelago where the Waved Albatross can nest and then take flight to return to feeding grounds far from Galápagos.
Jorge Carrión, Galápagos Conservancy Conservation Manager: The concentration and richness of species on Española is not easily seen elsewhere. In a single photo, it is easy to have several different species of birds, reptiles, insects, and plants — most endemic to the island. Española is perfectly located to enable the Waved Albatross to land and nest after their long months feeding at sea. Their reproduction cycle is dictated by global ocean and winds currents. When the strong winds from the south carry them home to Española, the Waved Albatross find the open space needed for nesting. Most importantly, the island’s southern cliffs provide the elevation and uplift required for these giant birds to take flight.
WERE THERE ANY UNIQUE CHALLENGES DURING THIS EXPEDITION?
Tapia: Our expedition goals were to understand the state of the albatross populations across the island and to reconfirm that the Giant Tortoise population is healthy and thriving without the need for further captive breeding. The challenge was the magnitude of mobilizing multiple camps simultaneously, combing almost 20 square kilometers of inhospitable terrain to ensure we meticulously covered all the important areas to gain this information. It was exhausting yet ultimately rewarding work.
Carrión: During the expedition, we monitored around 20 square kilometers — about a third of the island. Many of these areas were not only difficult terrain but also covered in thick, nearly impenetrable vegetation. Monitoring still had to be done and what we needed to count was in there. The only way to get real data was to find a way in.
TELL US ABOUT THE SIZE OF THE TEAM. HOW MANY PEOPLE WERE THERE AND WHAT WERE THEIR RESPONSIBILITIES?
Tapia: The expedition was comprised of 11 groups of three people spread across the entire island. Some camps were specifically monitoring the albatross and the other teams concentrated on the tortoises and cactus. Undertaking research in the extreme Galápagos conditions is simply not possible without the Galápagos National Park rangers, not only for their local knowledge and incredible endurance but for their invaluable contribution in collecting data. Supporting the 33-person research team, which included Galápagos Conservancy President Paul Salaman, were eight hardy porters; literally the lifeline for the field team bringing vital food and water to the camps from the supply base on the coast.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES OF PLANNING THE LOGISTICS OF A TRIP WITH THIS MANY PEOPLE?
Tapia: The 10-day expedition is actually months of work; preparing for, implementing the fieldwork and post-trip data processing and analysis. The very detailed action plan that Galápagos Conservancy and the Galápagos National Park Directorate conservation specialists put together not only defines objectives, study sites and the scientific method to be implemented, but has to contemplate the logistics and equipment required to mobilize a large group of people who will live off the grid and carry out technical tasks in harsh terrain. In the pre-trip training, leaders are identified who are not only expected to fulfill their monitoring tasks but to also oversee the needs of their respective camp and to ensure that everyone is applying the monitoring protocol correctly.
WHAT DOES THIS TRIP MEAN FOR THE EFFORTS TO REWILD GALÁPAGOS?
Tapia: Española is one of the preeminent rewilding success stories in history. The process began in 1965 and over the years has become synonymous with well-executed long-term planning, including eradicating invasive species such as feral goats and invasive plants. The island is now home to more than 2,000 tortoises, most captive-bred from the original 14 animals found there in the 1960s, others from the result of those tortoises reproducing naturally in the wild. The return of the tortoises was the missing piece to full restoration. These ecosystem engineers are now spreading seeds, transforming the landscape, and in doing so, help all the Española species establish a healthy natural dynamic for the island. The success of the Española captive breeding program also showcases the evolution of knowledge and techniques that will benefit current and future tortoise restoration programs on other islands.
Carrión: What we saw on this expedition really underscored that management decisions over more than 50 years have been effective; decisions that follow the principles of rewilding by eliminating introduced species and restoring populations of keystone species toward a goal of stepping back and letting nature take its course. For example, Galápagos Conservancy’s work with the Española tortoises showed that the population on the island was now large enough to be breeding successfully in the wild and that the captive breeding program was no longer needed. The focus is now on monitoring the effects of the tortoises, in their role as habitat engineers, on the vegetation – especially the cactus which is a primary food source for the tortoises. The tortoises also appear to be positively impacting the woody vegetation that became abundant when feral goats that once roamed the island were removed. The presence of these woody shrubs is causing problems for the albatross, which have difficulty landing in these dense thickets. We are aiming to establish the basis for a natural dynamic that one day will not require human intervention.
WHAT WAS AN UNFORGETTABLE MOMENT FROM THE TRIP?
Tapia: In areas where I did not expect to find cactus seedlings, I was pleasantly surprised to find clumps of tiny Opuntia Cactuses growing naturally. This means that tortoises are spreading seeds to areas where cactus are not abundant. That, in turn, means that in 40-50 years, once cactus, their principal food, is established, then tortoises will be able to move into these areas.
Carrión: My biggest surprise was to find a Giant Tortoise in the southern albatross nesting zone; actually in amongst the nesting birds. We had previously found tracks and feces nearby but never a live tortoise. The repatriated tortoises are released in the central zone where there is a lot of food, so to find them in the south indicates that they are distributing themselves across the island — fulfilling their ecological role as seed dispersers and habitat modifiers. That is great news for the albatross, which need clear areas amongst the woody plants to nest and to have “airstrips” for landing.
WHAT RESULTS ARE YOU HOPING FOR ONCE THE DATA IS ANALYZED?
Tapia: This expedition will provide the data to develop recommendations to the Galápagos National Park Directorate on long-term restoration planning for Española Island. This is applied science in action; using the knowledge gained from research to attain practical goals.
Carrión: Our hope was to find a lot of tortoises including babies — and we did! Natural reproduction in the wild is happening, validating the decision to put the last 14 tortoises found on the island in the 1960s into captivity and the recent decision to close the Española breeding program. Another result we hope will appear in the analysis of this expedition’s data is that we can corroborate that Waved Albatross are not just nesting along the southern coast but are also moving into the interior of the island. As the Giant Tortoises open up more spaces the albatross will have improved conditions for their annual visit to nest and raise their young.
WHAT ARE THE NEXT STEPS?
Tapia: Now the task of processing and analyzing data and drawing conclusions begins. The principal goal is to help the Galápagos National Park Directorate determine the optimum frequency required for effective monitoring of key species. Fieldwork is expensive and complex so one result might be, for example, that it would be more efficient to undertake an island-wide monitoring expedition as we just completed every five years instead of annual counts of only a segment of the focus study population.
Carrión: The 50+ year experiment to restore Española, a small 60-square-kilometer island, is proof that Giant Tortoises are key to ensuring a healthy native ecosystem for the islands they inhabit. We will need to continue monitoring the status of the Española tortoises while they rebuild their own population, spread cactus seeds, and control the woody plants which in turn contributes to the health of all the islands’ plants and animals. Now that a viable and healthy population of tortoises is in place, this small island provides the blueprint for successful rewilding that can be applied across the Archipelago.
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