Re:wild is partnering with other conservation groups to help restore biodiversity to Floreana Island – and it’s the small island community that is playing the biggest part
By Gege Li on May 18, 2021
If there’s one archipelago that perfectly encapsulates all the splendor and beauty that the wild has to offer, it has to be the Galápagos. This unique paradise located about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) off the Ecuadorian coast is made up of some 120 individual islands and was the birthplace for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, famously coined from his observations of the islands’ diverse – and sometimes entirely unique – range of inhabitants in 1835.
Today, 98% of the Galápagos Islands are protected as a national park and the archipelago as a whole has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for more than 40 years. Unsurprisingly, this has cemented its status as one of the top natural tourist destinations – in pre-Covid times, travelers from across the globe would routinely flock to the area to take in the stunning surroundings and bear witness to some of its most iconic species, such as the Galápagos Giant Tortoise.
But with the arrival of people on the islands’ shores over the course of human history, so in turn come unintended consequences. Floreana Island is the sixth largest island in the Galápagos, and its small but nonetheless prominent human population (only around 140 people live there) live within the Galápagos National Park.
“For us, it is an honor to live here in Galápagos with the flora and fauna of the Galápagos, which is unique and cannot be found elsewhere,” explains Anibal Altamirano, a Galapagos National Park ranger. “For me as a person, as a citizen of Floreana and as a park ranger it is very important that each of us live in harmony with nature.”
Sadly, past human intervention has caused the loss of some of the island’s endemic species over the years – notably, the now-extinct Floreana Giant Tortoise and the Endangered Floreana Mockingbird, which is one of 13 species that have been extirpated from the island.
The main problem lies with the invasive mammals that were previously introduced to Floreana, such as rats, mice, and feral cats, which not only pose a threat to the native wildlife but also to the people whose livelihoods depend on the island itself. These outsider species disrupt the ecological balance honed by generations of evolution by killing or driving out indigenous species, in turn reducing the number of special animals and plants that tourists travel from far and wide to see, as well as compromising food security for the community.
However, hope is not lost. Island Conservation is an organization with a mission: to put a stop to island extinctions by precisely targeting this matter. They have coordinated and led various projects that seek to remove or manage invasive species on islands like Floreana, with the idea of boosting dwindling endemic populations and harmonizing ecosystems.
Re:wild is now partnering with Island Conservation, the Galapagos National Park and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust to build on these restoration efforts in the Galapagos, starting with Floreana Island, in the hopes of giving extirpated species like the Floreana Mockingbird another chance of returning to their native home.
A community project
It goes without saying that the planning and implementation of efficient strategies that have conservation at their heart are key to the success of restoration projects like these. But they will have little long-term value and impact if the locals aren’t on board in the first place or are committed to seeing the project through.
Wildlife veterinarian Paula A. Castaño has been working with Island Conservation on their Floreana Island Ecological Restoration Project since 2014. She is the project’s native species specialist and island restoration specialist, coordinating the rewilding efforts on the island, and has firmly backed the importance of getting the whole island community involved in the project from the very beginning. “In this [scenario], you have to have the community as part of the project, otherwise you are not going to be successful mostly,” she explains. “Once you remove invasive species, you need to protect the island and avoid new species coming back. The biosecurity aspect is very important, so if [people] are not involved on that, it will not happen.”
Luckily, Castaño and her team working on the project weren’t met with much resistance on that front. In fact, they found that many of Floreana Island’s residents were already actively engaged with their natural surroundings and keen to preserve them in a way that wouldn’t compromise the ecosystem in the future, while allowing them to live in harmony with the island’s many different species. “It was something they wanted,” says Castaño.
“The species that we have [for example]—the birds, and the beauty of our islands—here we have something unique that cannot be found anywhere else in the world,” explains Mayra Gomez, a bakery owner in Floreana. “Also, people make Galápagos special, wherever you go, you can find a nice and kind person who will be willing to serve you.”
Thanks to this enthusiasm and a combination of other efforts – including conflict resolution workshops, and expeditions to introduce families to endemic species they had never seen before to help them feel more connected with the island – the project has so far been a great success. The Island Conservation team have been able to work with the people of Floreana Island every step of the way to minimize the ecological damage caused by feral cats and rodents.
Nonetheless, the project would be somewhat futile if restoring the environment came at the expense of the people who live there, Castaño points out. “They have to be part of the whole thing. They are the ones that are actually changing the way they're living and everything.”
With that firmly at the forefront of their minds, the project has also helped to provide infrastructure for people to manage other aspects of their island livelihoods, such as more secure enclosures for rearing livestock. Chicken coops lined with mesh, for example, allow the birds to roam more freely without fear of them being picked off by raptors. That in turn saves the predators themselves from the mercy of the locals, who would previously kill Galápagos Hawks and Short-eared Owls to protect their food supplies. This improved livestock organization also ties back to the main mission of the project by making it easier to introduce endemic species like the Galapagos Hawk back onto the island.
“It's a very different model. It combines everything to make sure that we have animal welfare, but at the same time we are able to reduce risk and improve the management of these animals for the long-term improvement of Floreana community livelihoods,” explains Castaño.
And there are other benefits too. Amidst an ongoing pandemic, the people of Floreana Island are more at risk than ever of losing their unique community tourism that they so rely on. Since the local population is so small, people would usually work together to host tourists and get a fair share of custom by, for example, arranging tours that take visitors to different restaurants and hotels each day.
“That way, all the resources are divided across the whole community, rather than just one [person]… That's a very nice way because all people get to be involved and all the community members are able to get some of those resources rather than being only applied to one,” says Castaño.
The project has lent its support in tackling this problem by helping to provide entrepreneurial training for people to start their own businesses, ready for when tourism resumes, selling everything from souvenirs to renting scuba equipment. All of these measures ensure the people of Floreana Island are sufficiently prepared for dealing with the situation on their own, long after the conservation groups leave.
Castaño, for one, says she is simply giving a helping hand to the people building their dream of the island they want to see in the future. “This sustainable vision was created by the community. It wasn't imposed by us or other people from the Galápagos National Park or anyone,” she adds.
In talking to the citizens of Floreana, it’s clear that they see their relationship with the wild of their island as symbiotic and extremely important to constantly care for.
“As a Galapagueña, I must take care of nature to leave a future for my family, my children, my descendants,” says Cecilia Salgado, a farmer on Floreana. “I do not use chemicals, everything is natural. The products of my farm are natural and the animals that I raise as well. For managing any pests affecting crops I use garlic-based bio-oil."
The wildlife on Floreana is not not the only thing that makes the island unique says Salgado. “We all want to live in peace and take care of what we have.”
That, ultimately, is the key: at its heart, the Floreana Island Ecological Restoration Project has been led first and foremost by the people that live there, taking into account their needs and goals while offering the support they need to get those ideas off the ground. Among such dazzling surroundings and with such an abundance of wildlife, it’s reassuring to hear that the people of the Galapagos are committed to keeping it that way, and without their will to do so, the rewilding of Floreana Island may never succeed.
“They are a role model for the rest of the archipelago,” says Castaño.
Gege Li is a freelance science writer based in London, UK and was previously an intern at both New Scientist and Chemistry World magazine. Though her background is in biochemistry, she is also passionate about writing about wildlife, the environment, health and technology, to communicate important scientific research and ideas to the public.