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Radiolab: Saving the Galápagos Giant Tortoise

Island Conservation’s Regional Executive Director of Latin America, Karl Campbell, shares his experience of removing invasive goats from Isabela Island, Galápagos.

Jad – Hey I’m Jad Abumrad.   

Robert - I’m Robert Krulwich. This is Radiolab and today we begin on a plane which carried our newly married producer Tim Howard to the Galápagos.   

Tim – So I took the plane from Quito. We had just finished a honeymoon that morning, me and Brooke. They make announcements and at a certain point the flight attendants they open up all of the overhead bins and they walk up and down spraying some sort of insecticide.   

Robert - For what?   

Jad – For like, invasive species, I think.   

Tim – Yeah like whatever bugs might have snuck on the plane. By this point I’m getting super excited and I’m thinking about Darwin and I start reading Voyage of the Beagle his book on this nook that I had bought for the trip but then my power supply didn’t work, and my nook died.   

Jad – That was a big problem for Darwin too, running out of power.  

Robert- His nook.  

Tim – And then the islands come into sight.  

island-conservation-preventing-extinctions-floreana-island-overview
Overview of Floreana Island. Credit: Tommy Hall

Robert – What is the color of the Pacific Ocean when you look out the plane window?  

Tim – That was actually the first thing I noticed. It was this totally wild like I’ve never seen this storybook blue-green iridescent aquamarine and I’m thinking ‘wow, this is going to be like dropping into another world. You know, like nature in its purest form.’  

Robert- My version was, is my dream of what it would be like is you land and it’s sort of like low grassy knoll and an enormous turtle comes by. One that you could sit on the top of and it wouldn’t notice that you were there.   

Jad – Just kind of meets you at the airport?   

Robert – Just kind of wandering by.  

Tim – Exactly, that’s very kind of similar to to what I was picturing. But, we land, we take the 40 minute bus ride to Puerto Ayora.

Robert – Puerto Ayora?  

Tim – Puerto Ayora. Which turns out to be kind of a big town. Tons of people are there.   

Robert – Tons like fishing village tons?   

Tim – No it’s way bigger than a fishing village. And just let me say that my first hours in Galápagos were totally different than I was expecting. But sort of the first thing that really just like, ‘where the hell am I?’ I’m walking through the town it’s kind of late. Sun is just starting to set. I’m actually walking down Charles Darwin Avenue, just kind of getting the lay of the land. When, all of a sudden, this line of cars comes around the corner. Honking endless honking. And they’re waving flags, blue flags. At first, I didn’t know what that was happening but turns out it was an election rally. And I was just really blown away that this continued this procession for like 15 minutes. And I remember asking one guy, “Quienes su candidato?” they’re driving so slow I can just walk up to them, “Como se llama candidato?” I asked someone in a car I was like who’s your candidate? I didn’t know who the guy was but turns out he was the incumbent and I’m like is he going to win “va a ganar?” And this guy he like doesn’t even say anything he just kind of points. He points at the cars at front in behind as if like, dude seriously? Do you see how many of us there are? But then at a certain point I noticed this one guy by himself standing on the sidewalk wearing a white shirt and jeans. He’s waving a flag but his flag is a different color. It’s white. And it’s really loud but I go up to him and I yell at him, “who’s your candidate? And he says, “yo se candidato” I am a candidate and I’m like what! Are you…seriously? So his name is Leonitus. He is a naturalist guide you actually end up meeting a lot of people employed that way in Galápagos and he tells me… “soy un outsider politica” politically speaking he is an outsider and of course i’m wondering why he’s standing there by himself waving a flag at this entire parade of people who don’t support him at all. And he tells me, well I’m nervous, if the party in power now, the front runners, if they get elected, then I see a dark and uncertain future. More big hotels, more of these enormous boats, more people, and if things keep going this way, then who’s going to stand up for nature?  

island-conservation-preventing-extinctions-floreana-forest
Floreana Island Forest. Credit: Tommy Hall

Jad – This is Radiolab and we are dedicating the entire hour to this little set of islands and to that question.   

Robert- As the world is filling up with more and more and more people is it inevitable that even the most sacred pristine places on the planet will eventually get swallowed up?   

Jad – And how far are we willing to go to return a place to what it was before we got there? And more importantly can we?   

Linda Cayo- Oh I’m never a doubter.   

Tim – Ok so this is Linda.  

Linda – Linda Cayo, currently the science advisor for Galapagos Conservancy. I began my work in Galapagos in 1981. 

Tim – She first came to study tortoises. Back then, Galápagos was really isolated. Barely any cars, super limited electricity.  

Linda – All I remember was having a smile on my face. All the time. Because you know as a biologist going to Galápagos is like going to mecca.  

Tim – She says you have islands with massive volcanoes, forests. 

Linda – Tree ferns that grow you know well above a humans height.  

Matthias Espinoza – Oh yeah, I mean powerful colors you know, green mangroves, black lava flows, and pink flamingos.   

Tim - This is Matthias Espinoza.  

Matthias Espinoza - A naturalist guide in the Galápagos.   

Tim – And like Linda, he says that when he first got to Galápagos in the 80s he couldn’t believe that the place was real.  

Matthias – Tu es breath taken. 

Tim – He visited an island called… 

Matthias – Fernandina and the first thing that I saw was a lava flow that was moving and I said what’s what’s going on, no no that’s not lava flow is that like 1000 sea iguanas taking a sun bath? 

Tim – And he says he would go on these dives. Can you imagine? 

Matthias - Schools of hammer head sharks like 500, 800 passing in front of you. Like tuna, I mean, like sardines. It shows you the power it shows you also evolution there. There is where evolution is very strong.   

Tim – Ok, so quick context, Galápagos islands cluster of islands way off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific. 19 bigger islands, bunch of smaller ones. And this is of course the place where Darwin landed in 1835. And as he went island to island, he started noticing there were all these creatures that were really similar to each other but also a little bit different. The tortoises had different shells depending on the kind of island they lived on. The finches looked similar, but their beaks were always a little bit different and this gets him thinking. What if it isn’t the way that everybody always says? What if god didn’t create every single species in the beginning and leave them unchanged? What if in fact, life is purely change? What if everything has been changing all the time? Darwin’s 5 weeks on Galapagos pushed him to develop his theory of evolution and that’s also why when we think of evolution we think of the Galapagos and in particular, we think of two iconic creatures: the tortoise and the finch. Let me start by telling you about the tortoise. It’s hot, its bright. It’s such a perfect day for tortoise hunting. Well not hunting but you know looking for. The fourth day I was there. I went to the island of  Floreana  which Darwin visited. And there up in the highlands basically in the middle of this yard. “Oh my god there are these three massive tortoises. Just clustered together under a tree. Wow that is freaking amazing.”   

Robert – Describe them. What did they look like? 

Tim – These are such alien looking creatures.  

Tim – They’re like the size of geez I don’t even know what they’re massive. They look like they would crush you to death. “I wonder how many years these guys have been here for?” They can live for over 150 years.  

Jad – Wow.  

Tim – “This is a tortoise trying to get over a branch” *muffled sounds*.  

Jas – What was that? 

Tim – That is the sound of a tortoise breathing.  

Jad – That’s cool.  

Tim – So, uh Linda when she first went to Galapagos to study these tortoises about 30 years ago.  

Linda – I did a trip where be backpacked around the Caldera.  

Tim – She took a trip to this island called Isabela hiked up the side of a volcano.   

Linda – And looked at all the tortoise country and it was an impenetrable forest. 

Tim – Basically, tortoise heaven. 

island-conservation-preventing-extinctions-two-Galápagos-tortoises
Two tortoises discuss the presence of humans on their island. Credit: Island Conservation

Linda – And what makes it so perfect for tortoises is in the dry season in Galapagos the garua which is a very, very thick mist comes onto the island.   

Tim – It rolls over this forest.   

Linda – And it catches in the branches of the trees.  

Tim – The water then drips down from the top of the trees down to the ground.   

Linda – Creating what we call drip pools which provides tortoises with water during the dry season and they like to rest in water.  

Tim – And so there under the trees you have these ponds with dozens of tortoise domes just rising out of the water.   

Linda – So that was my first experience it was a magical, magical area and then um I actually didn’t get back there for maybe 15 years from when I was there the first time and when I returned that forest was a hundred percent gone. The drip pools were just dry dust bowls.   

Tim – Wow.  

Linda – There was no shade. 

Karl Campbell – Tortoises were sitting out in the sun or, or crowded around the couple of stalks that were still there.  

Tim – This is Karl Campbell.  

Karl – Uh I work for Island Conservation and I’m based here in the Galapagos Islands.   

Tim – Carl’s actually the guy who showed me those tortoises.  

Karl – It was just a barren landscape. 

Linda - Yeah barren, barren grounds.   

Jad - What happened to the forests  

Linda – Um goats.   

Karl – Goats.  

Jad – That was definitely not what I thought you were going to say. I thought you were going to say people.   

Tim - Eh it was kind of a collaboration. So here’s the story…  

Karl - Goats were originally sort of brought to the Galapagos by pirates and whalers.  

Tim - Back in the 1500s you had tons of sellers making these long voyages across the Pacific K- The Galapagos was the major port on the whaling route um where you know you’d come and get fresh water but you’d also come in and pick up tortoises, land tortoises and you know, boats would take away several hundred of them often and turn them upside down and they can last for up to a year and a half in the hold of a ship.  

Jad - Like lying there upside down? 

Karl - Yep lying there upside-down  

Tim - In order to make space for the tortoises the whalers and pirates would often take goats that they’d brought with them and throw them onto the islands. That way when they’re on their way back and sick of eating tortoises they could grab those goats. So whalers and buccaneers, they introduced goats to Galapagos, but on islands like Isabela which is this massive island the size of Rhode Island. The goats were actually penned in to just a little part of it because there was this black lava rock that ran across the island.  

Linda - Extremely rough lava that’s extremely difficult to walk across.  

Tim – 12 miles of it.  

Linda – so that had acted as a barrier  

Jad – basically with goats on one side tortoises on the other but according to Linda.   

Linda - Sometime in the late 1970s 

Jad - The goats got brave.  

Linda - We were probably talking just a few goats but by the 1990s those few goats the population had exploded to about 100,000 goats.  

Jad - Wow.  

Linda –  And if you think of 100,000 goats eating everything in their path.  

Tim – Every sort of plant even the bark off of trees.  

Linda - They destroyed the forest. 

Tim - So now they had a dilemma on the one hand the tortoises needed help and on the other hand you had all of these goats that didn’t choose to be on the island you know it wasn’t their fault.  

Linda - And the goats that were out there were gorgeous you know, they had curled horns different colored fur, just beautiful animals.   

Tim - And they’d been there for 500 years.   

Karl- Some people were concerned you know with uh goats have their own sort of, if you will, right to be there and those arguments came up frequently.  

Tim - To which Karl would respond.   

Karl - Are we gonna let tortoises go extinct you know there’s thousands of islands around the world that have goats on them.   

Jad - These tortoises are only found here.   

Karl - So where did your values lie?   

Linda - And so in 1994 we had what we called the Tortoise Summit in England and that was where we started the discussions about what are we gonna do.   

Tim - Experts came from all over the world, Linda says, we want to get rid of the goats.   

Linda – And many of them thought we were nuts and that it was impossible.   

Floreana Island in the Galápagos. Credit: Island Conservation

Tim - There’s 100,000 of them.   

Linda - So many doubters.   

Jad – Karl says he even heard the idea…   

Karl -Why don’t you put in lions you know they eat goats in Africa why don’t you get lions in there and those are really interesting ideas but at some point they’re going to get hungry and they’re going to start eating all of the other things that you know you treasure like the occasional tourist.  

Tim- In any case after endless planning and meetings. 

Linda – Took 8 years, I think.   

Tim – They commence, Project Isabela.   

Frasier Sutherland- So the helicopters we use they’re called MD 500s small helicopter there for 4 passengers or my pilot single turbine 5 blades.  

Tim - This is Frasier.   

Frasier Sutherland - I was the engineer, pilot, and the sharp shooter 2004 through to 2006.   

Tim - Almost every day during that time Frasier would fly over Isabela Island two guys…  

Frasier- Two shooters either side of the helicopter. What you do is so you come across and you’re flying along, and you might see one goat…  

Tim- Says you’d follow that goat as it ran away till it joined its friends.   

Fraiser- But you have to find all those other goats.   

Tim - Circle real low…   

Fraiser- You’d fly around them…   

Tim – Round them up…   
Fraiser- Try and get them in a single group…  

Linda- And then *shots*.   

Tim - You start picking off the goats one by one by one and there are actually videos online where you see these packs of goats running for their lives and then dropping to the ground.   

Linda - The last goat or two might sort of run into an area where it’s impossible to reach.  

Fraiser – I would actually go into caves and what we’d do is we’d find a location as close as we could or right on top of the cave drop out one of the two shooters that was in the helicopter and he’d physically go into the cave shoot the goats out or shoot them on site.   

Linda - And then you’d go on.   

Tim - And actually in under a year through this aerial attack they end up wiping out 90% of the goats on Isabela.   

Josh Dunlin - But to give examples of  the nature of this business.  

Tim - That’s Josh Dunlin he runs an NGO that was involved in Project Isabella.   

Josh - It’s relatively easy to remove 90% of goat population from an island but as they become rarer and rarer, they’re harder and harder to detect.   

Tim – The goats become quote “educated” they learn that this sound *helicopter* means *shots* so the goats start hiding.   

Fraiser - So they go into bushes they won’t move.   

Tim - They’ll learn to stand under a tree holding their breath.  

Jad - And so you end up flying around in an expensive helicopter not finding any goats now the way we deal with that it’s an interesting one we use this technique called judas goats.   

Karl - Yeah, judas goats.   

island-conservation-preventing-extinctions-galapagos-pinzon-tortoise
A GalápagosTortoise extending its neck. Credit: Rory Stansbury

Jad - Initially it was Karl’s suggestion.   

Karl - Those goats are gregarious and like being in groups.   

Tim - They’re herd animals right?   

Jad - And so uh the technique that we would use was you would fire up your helicopter you fly around you’d find some goats you’d…   

Karl - Capture goats…   

Jad - Capture them live… and then come back… 

Jad - Back to base camp… 

Karl – Offload them…  

Jad - And you’d put a radio collar on em and you’d throw em back on the island  

Tim – And then you wait instinctively. 

Karl - That lone goat will go and find other goats.  

Josh - A week, two weeks go by you fire up the helicopter.  

Tim - They get back over the island with this little device…   

Karl - It’s a directional antenna. 

Tim - Start tracking the judas goat spot it with some other goats…   

Josh - And then *shots* everyone gets shot except the judas goat.  

Tim - They let it go, finds more friends.  

Josh - And then everyone gets shot except the judas goat…   

Tim - And then they do it again. 

Josh - Everyone gets shot except the judas goat and you do that every two weeks for a year.  

Jad - Oh my god.  

Tim - And that is how they go from 90% goat free from 91 to 92 to 93.   

Robert - It’s like having a pogrom on you over and over and over again.  

Jad – I know,  jesus.  

 Tim - It gets worse. 

 Josh - Now judas goat is a good judas goat until it gets pregnant. 

Tim - Because then it doesn’t want to be social anymore.  

Josh – It goes off and has its kid and is very solitary which is the last thing you want when you’re trying to get goats off islands. 

 Tim - So Karl kept mulling this problem.  

 Karl - What would it take to basically make the perfect judas goat, the ideal judas goat if you will is a goat that would search for and be searched for.  

Jad - And it would never get pregnant.   

Josh - So Karl Campbell figured out a technique where we could sterilize them in the field. 

Tim - Grab the goats, dart em, and then in a matter of minutes…  

Josh – Snip, snip.

island-conservation-preventing-extinctions-tortoise-pool
A Tortoise relaxes in a drip pool. Credit: Island Conservation

Tim- Did you do this?  

Josh - Yeah well I, I stood next to Karl and watched him do it.   

Josh - And Karl took it one step further and he actually gave these females hormone implants. 

Tim - Basically put them into heat.   

Karl - For an extended duration…  

Tim - Normally a female goat would be in heat for maybe a couple days. These females would go for.  

Karl - More than 180 days.   

Tim - And wherever they went they would lure those male goats out of their caves so that you know *shots* all in all over the course of this two-year program…  

Josh - We had hundreds of judas goats out… 

Tim - And using those goats they were able to go from 94% to 96% to 97 to 98.

Karl - And basically when you have only judas goats meeting up with other judas goats.  

Linda - Then you can say the goats have been eliminated.  

Karl - That you’re done.  

Tim - A point they got to at least on Isabela in mid-2006.  

Linda - This kind of eradication program was far beyond anything that anyone had ever done anywhere in the world.   

Tim - Because it turns out they weren’t just doing this on Isabela Island.   

Linda - No we’re talking about island by island.  

Tim - Over the course of about 7 years, they eliminate over 250,000 goats. So you complete that with Isabela and did it work?   

Karl - Yeah, the results of this were absolutely impressive. 

 Tim - You had plants reemerging you had trees growing back.  

Karl - And in a really short period of time.  

Tim - And this allowed for those important drip pools and tortoises they basically got their home back. “This is a real thing. Tortoises walking around. Wow. Es incredible.”   

Jad - So they did it they got all the goats.  

Tim - Not all the goats   

Robert - What do you mean?   

Tim - Those judas goats, they kept them around.  

Robert - Why?   

Jad – I would just, I would have shot them first just out of sympathy for them.   

Robert - Yeah exactly.   

Tim - Well they needed the goats because well there was the problem of people… ”Si se puede! Si se puede!”.   

Tim - Because during the 90s these demonstrations started to happen.   

Matthius - Demonstrations of outrage and violent activity. Constant conflict.   

Tim - To explain…  

Augustine Lopez – Loque pasa la el pocada que esto de la pesca.  

Tim - This is Augustine Lopez long-time fisherman and he told me that in the 70s and 80s lobster was fished all year round no restrictions and then fisherman started making a killing fishing sea cucumber because there was this huge demand but then the national park comes in the same group that’s doing the goat eradication and they tell the fisherman they’re overfishing these sea cucumber they’ve gotta limit their catch and the fisherman are like “who are you to tell me that I can’t feed my family.” So they lash out “si se puede!” “Si se puede!” They march down Charles Darwin Avenue.   

Paul Watson- They would come down the street throwing rocks and sticks and everything and…   

Tim - That’s Paul Watson, founder of The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, he was there counter-protesting and he says that at one point they went after national park buildings.   

Paul - And they were attacking the ranger’s stations with Molotov cocktails.   

Tim - They blockaded roads.   

Paul - They literally drove the rangers out of the national park headquarters and took it over.   

Tim- On Isabela, they burned down a building.   

Paul - They kidnapped some people including some of my crew.   

Tim - And they even killed dozens of tortoises. Slitting their throats according to some accounts they even hung them from trees.  

Linda - Uh so…   

Tim - Not only that but according to Linda those goats…   

Linda - A couple of islands where they’ve been eliminated fisherman have put them back.   

Tim - Really?  

 Linda - Oh yeah.   

Tim - And so what they decided to do is leave the judas goats on various islands where they can live out their sterilized days chomping on grass sharing war stories until such time as it might be needed again.   

Robert - Is, is the war between the greens and the and the fisherman and such is that still hot and difficult? Are they still you know killing tortoises?   

Tim - They’re not the  fisherman um they seem to have stopped you know taking over national parks and killing tortoises.  

Robert – Do you know why?   

Tim - It it’s a combination of reasons, on the one hand fisherman have started to participate in the actual fisheries management more because it seems like they realize if they’re going to keep their livelihoods they can’t just fish everything out but then at the same time the tourism economy has been taking off and so all of these fishermen they find that it’s easier for them to actually survive by using their boats to take tours around island to island so they’re all kind of converting over into the tourism economy.   

Featured Image: Galápagos Giant Tortoise. Credit: Island Conservation

About Island Conservation

Island Conservation prevents extinctions by removing invasive species from islands. To date, we have successfully restored 63 islands worldwide, benefiting 1173 populations of 468 species and subspecies. Working together with local communities, government management agencies, and conservation organizations, we select islands that have the greatest potential for preventing the extinction of globally threatened species.

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