QUITO – The Galapagos National Park, or PNG, which protects and monitors biodiversity on the like-named Ecuadorian island chain, announced the strong recovery of vegetation and tortoise and albatross populations on Española, the southernmost island in the Pacific archipelago.
In recent days, PNG scientists and guards visited Española, where a lengthy flora and fauna recovery program has been carried out after the island’s delicate ecosystem was damaged by herds of goats surreptitiously introduced several decades ago.
The goats were eradicated from Española some 30 years ago amid an effort to ensure the recovery of the giant tortoise population.
The damage inflicted by the goats also affected colonies of albatrosses, the world’s largest seabird, as well as types of cactus that are endemic to Española and ligneous vegetation, the PNG said Friday in its latest report on the island.
The report stated that the giant tortoise population – which had shrunk to as few as 15 – has since risen thanks to the repatriation of more than 2,000 reptiles raised in captivity, adding that those animals now are reproducing naturally.
“We are now finding nests, recently hatched tortoises, adults who had been born in the wild, which tells us that it’s a population in good condition and we’ll have to evaluate whether it’s still necessary to continue breeding them in captivity,” Washington Tapia, PNG’s technical coordinator and head of the project, said.
In reference to the albatross, whose numbers had fallen in some parts of Española due to a lack of nesting areas, the report said the current colony is probably more numerous than census figures traditionally show.
Likewise, a cactus native to Española – opuntia megasperma var. orientalis – was one of the species most affected by the goats that once inhabited the island. Some studies had found no young plants of that species and therefore a repopulation project was carried out, the report said.
Monitoring in recent days shows evidence of “young cacti throughout the entire area in which that species had historically been distributed, which demonstrates that it is recovering,” the text read.
“This monitoring shows us that the tortoises have begun to play their role as engineers of the ecosystem and we can say with total certainty that Española’s ecological integrity is being restored,” Tapia said.
The PNG has used electronic devices to monitor that island’s giant tortoise population, part of a recovery and environmental protection project that has included the participation of State University of New York researcher James Gibbs and financial support from the Galapagos Conservancy organization.
The Galapagos Islands are located about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) west of the coast of continental Ecuador and were declared a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site in 1978.
Some 95 percent of the territory’s 8,000 sq. kilometers (a little over 3,000 sq. miles) constitutes a protected area that is home to more than 50 species of animals and birds found nowhere else on the planet.
The islands were made famous by 19th-century British naturalist Charles Darwin, whose observations of life on the islands contributed greatly to his theory of the evolution of species.