The Galápagos National Park

Natalia Costello
Letters and Science Major and College Park Scholars-Earth, Life & Time
July 11, 2000

The Galápagos have been named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The islands are a National Park, and the sea surrounding them is a Marine Reserve.

The Galápagos National Park was established in 1959. Its mission is “to provide the knowledge and support to ensure the conservation of the environment and bio-diversity of the archipelago of Galápagos, through scientific research and complementary actions ”. The Galápagos National Park consists of 97% of the land on the islands; that is approximately 9000 kilometers2 or 6000 miles2.

But why are the Galápagos so special? What makes the Galápagos National Park different from other National Parks around the world?
The Galápagos National Park is different and more special than other National Parks. More than 1,900 of its 5,000 unique species are endemic, that is, they are found no where else in the world. Second, these species are very fragile, and third, people have lived here even before it became a National Park.

What you can expect to find on this site:

Charles Darwin Research Station
The care and protection of the Galápagos National Park depends upon the help of the Charles Darwin Research Station, which was established in 1959, one hundred years after Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of the Species”. The Station is located on Santa Cruz Island in Puerto Aroya. What the Charles Darwin Research Station stresses most is scientific research geared toward conservation and management of the Galápagos National Park and Galápagos Marine Reserve. Management of the National Park is intended to meet two essential requirements: avoiding the destruction of more native plants and animals, combined with the reparation of the remaining wildlife and the elimination of introduced species and predators. The Station has many facilities, which include a library, museum, herbarium, marine laboratory, darkroom, computer room, research boat “Beagle”, and forestry nursery.

A Tour of the Charles Darwin Research Station
Our guide William provided us with a complete list of what to expect at the Darwin Research Station.

Like most National Parks, a sign greets your arrival; here you may also find an information office. Your first stop is the Van Straeelen Interpretation Center. In this Interpretation Center a speaker will explain some of the programs the Charles Darwin Research Station carry’s out, and following the speaker, you will watch a movie. There are brochures and pamphlets to take home and very nice displays inside. As you continue your walk with your guide, you will find one of the major projects the Station is working on, the breeding of tortoises.
Instead of posing next to baby tortoises, Jeremy decided to get a shot with the breeding center sign.

Here the baby tortoises are in cage like structures for viewing by the public, from a distance one can see the incubators used for tortoise eggs.
Baby tortoises having fun in their playpen.

As the tour continues, the turtles in cages grow larger, until they are no longer in cages and have moved into a semi-natural environment. You have now arrived to the tortoise corrals. Here you may see Lonesome George, the last giant tortoise from the Pinta Island. Unfortunately, our group did not see him, but Lonesome George made an appearance for the other group. These giant tortoises are still in some sort of entrapment but the boundaries are much greater. The final part of the tour is the greatest, because this is where you can find yourself face to face with giant tortoises, an incredible experience.
Among the noise and photographs from the tourists, this giant tortoise decided to take a nap.

It was so cool to sit next to a giant tortoise that may have been alive during the 18th century! Despite this wonderful moment of taking your picture next to the giant Galápagos tortoise, this setting of concrete and tourists in which the tortoises live, makes you a little sad. On the other hand, the tortoises are not by any means in a zoo, they are here in this center for their own well-being.

Interested in becoming a guide for the Galápagos National Park?
There are about 500 registered guides that come from all over the world to work for the Galápagos National Park. However, only about 90 to 100 are active guides. Licensed Galápagos naturalist guides accompany all visitors to the National Park, they are considered crew members on all tour boats, ships, and yachts. They explain the natural and human history of the islands and enforce national park rules and regulations. Aside from what the guides are required to explain about the islands, the guides also offer their own personal touch and experiences. Our trip without our guides, William and Lenin, certainly would not have been the same. By the end of the trip everyone had become friends with the guides, and when it was time to say goodbye and leave, I found myself in tears.
To become a Galápagos National Park guide you must pay for your flight and hotel accommodations during your three-month training session. During this time, you will have morning and afternoon multidisciplinary activities, field trips and a five-hour exam at the end of the course, in which you need at least eighty percent to pass and receive your license. If you do not pass the first time, you may take the entire course again in hopes of passing the exam. Good Luck!
If you are not interested in becoming a Galápagos National Park Guide, but want to be involved with the Park Service, many more opportunities are available. There are researchers, scientists who work in the laboratories, people who design projects or develop trails, or even park rangers. You could be involved in planing schedules for the boats, work at the airport checking cargo for seeds, and help manage the marine reserve, or help in the education of children.

Special Programs

Humans, dogs, pigs, rats, goats and donkeys have all been the predators of the tortoise, and because of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” there may only be less than 20,000 alive today. The Galápagos National Park and Charles Darwin Research Station have been very successful in saving the tortoises since 1964. This was the year when scientists went to Española and only found 13 tortoises, 2 male and 11 female. Scientists were worried for the tortoises’ lives, for that reason, in 1965, the breeding center was established.
A Galapagos tortoise in the breeding center.

Incubators are used for holding eggs. Researchers go out into the fields, collect the eggs from the nests and make note of the location, then bring the eggs to the breeding center. Incubators use electric and solar energy to heat temperatures of 29.5°C for breeding females, and 28°C for breeding males. Once the tortoises hatch they are kept in pens for roughly two years, a semi-natural environment for the next two years and finally returned to the wild, in the exact place where they were found. However if the tortoises’ shells are not yet strong enough to resist attacks by rats or dogs, they will stay at the station until ready. A wonderful example of this program is Española Island. When the program first began, only fourteen tortoises were found on the island, but recently on March 15, one thousand tortoises were released to the island.

The Galápagos land iguana is unique, as it can only be found in the Galápagos. But its life has been threatened many times. In 1976 wild dogs killed about 500 land iguanas at Conway Bay on Santa Cruz Island, and another attack on Cartago Bay on Isabela Island killed more land iguanas. In an effort to save the Galápagos land iguanas, the Charles Darwin Research Station and Galápagos National Park Service began a captive breeding and rearing program. Like with the tortoises, the land iguana eggs are incubated until they hatch, and they are raised until ready to return to the wild. When we visited Cerro Dragon, on Santa Cruz Island I noticed that the land iguanas were shy and remained hidden by trees and bushes. The reason for this is because every so often the park service catch the land iguanas for examination and record measurements. The land iguanas can be distinguished from one another because they are all numbered. After examinations, they are released but become very shy to tourists, as they think we are the park service ready for yet another check up.
Another method of breeding the iguanas is to build a special environment secluded from tourists and feral animals. This is exactly what the park service has done. This successful program, places land iguanas are on a isolated island, away from harm, for breeding and rearing purposes until they are ready to return. As part of the land iguana breeding program, feral cats have been controlled in places such as Baltra Island, Conway Bay on Santa Cruz Island, and Cartago Bay on Isabela Island. For more information on the Galápagos land iguana, visit Todd Metcalfe's contribution.

Progress has already been made in eliminating alien plants and animals, but the battle is far from over. Scientists at the Darwin Station and Park Service estimate that there are almost 800 introduced species of plants and animals, which have inhabited the islands. These introduced species, such as goats, the black rat, house mouse, domestic cattle, horses, donkeys, sheep, pigs, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, insects and a variety of plants are one of the most serious threats to the variety of life in the Galápagos. Furthermore, they are very hard to control. The Park service try’s to prevent introduced plants entry to the islands by checking all incoming cargo for seeds or plants. During El Niño, thick vines grow on the trees; the Park Service then must come and cut down the vines in order to save the trees. As for the animals, of the fourteen endemic species of mammals, eight are extinct and three are considered endangered. These mammals’ predators need to be stopped.
Domestic livestock, like the goat, has taken the place of the giant tortoise as chief grazing animal. By the 1950’s on Santiago, native vegetation had almost all disappeared and the original four goats released, had multiplied to a population of over 100,000. Since then, the Park Service has hired hunters to rid Isabela and Santiago Islands of nearly 200,000 feral goats with the help of trained dogs. Likewise, Pinta, home of Lonesome George, was thought to be declared "goat-free". Previous methods did not completely eradicate the goats; however, recent trips now use the "Judas Goat" technique of releasing goats with tracking collars to locate the difficult-to-find feral animals. This program appears to be successful and with future regular monitoring the park will know whether the goats have finally all been removed from Pinta .

Galápagos National Park: 1999 Summary of Activies
The following is a list of the most important events of the Galápagos National Park in 1999. This list was prepared by Desirée Cruz, External Relations Officer of the Galápagos National Park.

Lonesome George
The Terrapins have arrived. Lonesome George is not lonesome anymore.

The oldest known resident of the Galápagos Islands is a giant tortoise named Lonesome George. He was found in 1971 on Pinta Island with another female tortoise, but only George came to the Charles Darwin Research Station because he was of good health. Lonesome George is still young, between eighty or ninety years of age. However, George will not mate with his two female friends who belong to Isabela Island. The Station is trying to get a hybrid of George, hopefully as technology increases the scientists will be able to use George’s DNA to produce another “George”. However these hybrids are not very fertile.

Interpretation Center
The Charles Darwin Foundation and Galápagos National Park Service work together and not only focus on protecting nature, but on the participation and education of the community. A perfect example is the Interpretation Center. Located in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island, its ideal layout for children appropriately teaches the natural and human history of the Galápagos Islands. Opened in 1998, I was very impressed with this Center, as it was very modern and easy for children to follow. It explains ocean currents, the first conquest, forests, the finches, Darwin’s expedition, human visitation to the islands, and exploitation and attempts of colonization. These sections of the interpretation center are displayed through pictures, diagrams, interactive objects and games, short easy descriptions in Spanish and English, videos and colorful cartoons.
Here Jeremy and Kenny show the interaction possible at the interpretation center.

The Charles Darwin Research Station promotes environmental education also through two new projects. The first is a series of educational materials called “Guias Didacticas de Campo” or Field Teaching Guides that teach children of the unique environment of the Galápagos with field trips. The second project is a book for children called “Un Montoncito de Tierra en el Mar” or A Little Mountain of Earth in the Sea. While the students read, they learn mathematics, language, social studies, natural sciences, and even ethics while studying the environment.
How Can We Improve the Galápagos National Park?

Even though the Galápagos National Park still needs improvement, it has been very successful. Ecuadorians are extremely proud of their National Park. As a developing country, Ecuador is doing a great job in the management and conservation of its National Park, when other more fully developed countries lack the motivation and community involvement of their National Parks. A perfect example is the fact that 92% of the endemic animals from before Galápagos became a National Park are still alive and flourishing. This is remarkable since man first visited the Galápagos in 1535.

Additional Reading
Simon, Noel. Nature in Danger. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
The Charles Darwin Foundation
The World Wildlife Foundation
Cruz, Desirée. Galápagos National Park: 1999 Summary of Activities. June 2000.
Still Got Questions?