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Dr. Robert Bensted-Smith: Darwin's Delight: The Galapagos Islands

Dr. Robert Bensted-Smith

Dr. Robert Bensted-Smith: Darwin's Delight: The Galapagos Islands

Dr. Robert Bensted-Smith

Today, visitors to the islands still have the opportunity to admire the same species, those unique and marvelous creatures, which Darwin himself found here. For my part, I first came to the Galapagos as a naturalist guide in 1981 and the experience inspired me to embark on a career in conservation, which has eventually led me back to the Islands, to dedicate my efforts to the preservation of this special place.

Although the islands still maintain 95% of their original species diversity, challenges to conservation are on the increase. Our research and education work here at the Charles Darwin Research Station are essential for Galapagos to maintain its extraordinary natural setting.

The biggest challenge to conservation is the effects of invasive species upon the islands, which disrupt the natural ecosystem and endanger the largely defenseless native species.

This threat to the Islands’ wildlife manifests itself in different ways: clever predators like the black rat, invasive plants like the blackberry which smother vast areas, or species with more insidious effects like insects or diseases.

The Research Station, together with the Galapagos National Park Service, aims to conserve and restore the Galapagos environment and biological diversity. Our work includes monitoring the ecosystems and investigating the status and biology of native terrestrial and marine species, in order to understand how best to protect them and to restore their population levels. Introduced plants and animals are studied to find strategies for their control and eradication. We have developed innovative captive rearing techniques for endangered populations of tortoises and land iguanas with outstanding success. In the island of Espanola, which thirty years ago had just 15 tortoises, the number of young tortoises repatriated has this year passed the 1000 mark. Studies on reproductive success and the impacts of introduced predators are helping us work out how to save the extremely rare mangrove finch, one of the species critical to Darwin’s evolutionary theories and still of great scientific importance. Amongst the finches’ botanical counterparts, the genus Scalesia, the species S. atractyloides from Santiago Island was considered extinct in the wild until a team of scientists and Park rangers rediscovered two varieties of this plant, which since then have been fenced to protect them from introduced goats.

In order to prevent new introductions of invasive species, the Charles Darwin Research Station is coordinating the establishment of an inspection and quarantine system, which checks cargo coming in by plane or boat to prevent the entry of pests. In its first 7 months since starting up in mid-99, though still only partially operational, the system intercepted 31 insect-infested items of cargo and 95 prohibited or inadequately treated products.

There is also the small matter of the 133,000 square kilometres of Pacific Ocean that form the Galapagos Marine Reserve! The creation of this protected area in 1998, following a successful local consensus building process initiated by the Station and Park, provides a great opportunity to conserve this long neglected half of the Galapagos ecosystem, which has been subject to both industrial fishing and increasing levels of local artisanal fishing. Station scientists study the marine ecosystems and their vulnerable species, in order to provide advice for their sustainable management and to promote the interests of biodiversity conservation in this area of multiple and often conflicting interests. With the participation of fishermen, fish catches are monitored and guidance is given on how to achieve sustainable fisheries management. Consensus has been reached in drafting the management plan and designating no-fishing zones in the Marine Reserve, through negotiation with the local tourism and artisanal fishing sectors. Industrial fishing has been prohibited.

An essential component of all these conservation efforts, marine and terrestrial, is our work with the local community, so that they can achieve a way of life that is appropriate for conservation. We work not only with adults but also with the schoolchildren and youth of Galapagos, through teacher training, production of educational materials and the operation of Environmental Education Centers on the three main inhabited islands. We train biologists and other potential conservation professionals. In the last 40 years more than 500 students, mostly Ecuadorians, have worked and received training here, including some of the leading figures in conservation in Galapagos and elsewhere in the region – not least amongst them the CDF President, Miguel Cifuentes, and the Galapagos National Park Service Director, Eliecer Cruz!

The work of the Station is wide-ranging and demanding, especially in a fast changing environment, not only climatic but also social, economic and political. Without this work over four decades, and our partnership with the Galapagos National Park Service, a visitors’ experience might have been to seeing last remnants of a fabled archipelago rather than an abundance of plant and animal life. In fact the flora and fauna around the visitor sites have barely changed since my guiding days 20 years ago.

The work of the Station would not have been possible without the network of our friends and supporters around the world. In the U.S., the Charles Darwin Foundation, Inc. (CDF Inc.) has helped channel donor support to us, enabling us to continue our vital work. With their help we are scaling up our efforts and responding to the increasingly complex challenges of conserving a once-isolated ecosystem in a globalized world.

The Galapagos Islands are inherently vulnerable; they will always need intensive conservation management. Whilst the challenges are many, there is still great hope that the Station and the Galapagos National Park Service will be able to protect and restore these islands for future generations.

Dr. Robert Bensted-Smith is Director of the Charles Darwin Research Station.