Dispatch from the Galapagos: The summer I gave up meat

Rachel Atkinson hops like a Darwin finch from one volcanic outcropping to the next, then plunges into ankle-deep mud. Squishing as she walks, the botanist with the Charles Darwin Research Station homes in on the ailing invaders: blackberry, passion fruit, and quinine bushes clustered near Santa Cruz Island’s last shrubby stands of Scalesia trees. Atkinson smiles in approval. One more blast of herbicide ought to prevent the aliens from regrowing and give the Scalesia a shot at survival after all.

We were on the front-line of an epic war being waged on all sorts of invasive species in the Galápagos Islands. Surprisingly, the culprit seems to be global warming, which is usually associated with polar bears and other sorts of cold things-not an archipelago situated one degree south of the equator.

It all started in the late 1980s, when the periodic El Niños became more frequent and severe. Of course, we do have to give some credit to the pirates and whalers who began visiting the Galápagos in the 1700s and leaving behind goats, pigs, and other animals as a living larder for future visits. That couldn’t have helped.
The torrential monsoons have since thrown the entire island ecosystem in a loop. In some cases, like what Atkinson is battling, invasive weeds have exploded. In other cases where there aren’t weeds, native plants have been doing the exploding, also a problem because that attracts goats. Godfrey Merlen, a Galápagos native and director of WildAid, says he saw “two or three” goats on the upper flanks of Isabela Island’s Alcedo volcano in 1992. When he returned three years later, he saw hundreds. “It was total chaos,” Merlen says. The goats had denuded the once-lush terrain, transforming brush and cloud forests into patchy grassland.

While I didn’t make it to the remote volcanoes on Isabela, I was able to tag along for two weeks with a National Geographic research team tracking giant tortoises. Although the tortoises were interesting (they’ve been a victim of the goats, who have eaten up their food source), I was there for the .223-caliber rifles. You see, several trigger-happy park rangers were accompanying the scientists and they were mad. Their goal was to shoot and kill any goat they saw. I learned they were part of the world’s largest eradication campaign-an $18 million effort to rid the islands of 140,000 feral goats.

But I never saw them use the rifles, for by now, ten years after the start of the campaign, they have become so fit and smart they can run down the goats on foot (and bullets cost money). The first time I witnessed the exhilarating chase, I thought it couldn’t be that hard to keep up with them. While the rangers nimbly corralled the goats into a basin depression, coordinating with each other in an elegant ballet, I had found a rock to stub my toe on. And that was that.

For the next two weeks, we feasted on goats. More accurately, the first week was a feast. Then we ran out of spices. Yet still, we were too polite not to chow down the goat soup, goat sandwiches, goat sushi (only once), and whatever else the park rangers / part-time chefs cooked up.

I stayed up late into the night talking to them about goats-and trying to digest my dinner. I learned that the national park imported hunting dogs from New Zealand and trained them to track and kill goats. Helicopters were pressed into service for sharpshooters to reach rugged highlands. To flush out holdouts, the park released “Judas” goats, including sterilized females plied with hormones to keep them in heat and attract males.

All in all, these rangers have been excellent hunters who were using the latest technology, and it’s paid off-this year they managed to wipe out the goats on Isabela. “A great battle has been won,” Victor Carrion, subdirector of the park, said to me later, though he cautioned that much more work needs to be done eradicating other invasive species.

Although one bane has been eliminated, others are at large. In northern Isabela, rats have ravaged the last two nesting sites of mangrove finches, estimated at fewer than 100. And both rats and feral cats have decimated a subspecies of marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus albemarlensis) endemic to Isabela, prompting the World Conservation Union to add it to its vulnerable list in 2004. Rangers have set out traps and poison for Isabela’s rats and are plotting eradication campaigns on Floreana and Santiago islands. An effort to poison feral cats will commence next year.
Impressive, no doubt.

But those rangers?

They were not good cooks.