Poisoning the Galapagos

Arguably the most talked about archipelago on the planet, the Galapagos Islands are a hub of fascination, where tourism and conservation go head to head in an economically-driven, Ecuadorian-run, battle for conservation.

After Darwin’s arrival on the HMS Beagle in 1835, and the profound discoveries that stemmed from it many years later, the Galapagos Islands have been a focus for international conservation efforts and protective legislation since the 1930s. The main threat toward the animals of the Galapagos are primarily feral and invasive species, brought accidentally and intentionally by visitors over the centuries; goats decimated endemic plants, dogs preyed on defenseless endemic animals, and rats ran wild off the docking ships.

Currently, uninhabited Pinzon island plays host to a shocking estimated 180 million black rats (Rattus rattus), 10 per metre squared. The rats are a significant threat toward the protected species on the Galapagos, consuming endemic marine iguana eggs, as well as those of many species of birds.

As a solution, the Galapagos Conservancy has issued a controversial eradication, whereby helicopters will deliver 22 tonnes of poison bait across Pinzon island this December (2012). The operation cost the Ecuadorian Government and a coalition of conservation groups approximately £1.13 million, arguably a small price to pay for the preservation of one of our most valued wildlife reserves.


(Image from New Scientist: AP Photos, Dolores Ochoa)

The poison comes in the form of a small blue cube, which lab studies have revealed are of particular interest to rats, yet repel other island species. The poison is fast-degradable and once consumed, will aid the decomposition of the bodies in time to prevent the significant accumulation of disease vectors.

For the success of the operation, every single rat must be killed, to prevent any offspring learning the threats of the blue cube. In addition, species within the area such as hawks and iguanas have been temporarily housed whilst the operation is carried out. How many hawks are needed to sustainably restock the island after the eradication? Are there any other animals that may be affected? What if it runs into the water? Non-target species such as owls have already been found dead as victims of the poison.

It isn’t without some skepticism that conservations around the world are criticizing and debating the eradication program. However, despite all the controversy it must be assumed that reliable research has sourced the solution, and all the questions have already been answered by experts. Only time will tell as the most famous nature reserve on the planet attempts to be saved.