Monday, April 21, 2014

Jatun Sacha Biological Reserve - Galápagos Islands

Jatun Sacha Biological Reserve- Galápagos Islands from Stevee Chapman on Vimeo.

By Stevee Chapman

As the second most populated island in the Galápagos, San Cristobal is a popular stop for travelers who have made their way to Darwin’s famous islands.

However, between the 5,400 permanent residents and numerous tourists visiting the island each year, there are multiple opportunities for quarantine regulations to be ignored. This allows new species of plants and animals to be introduced to the island every day.

While the Galápagos has some of the highest percentages of biodiversity in the world, introduction of new species to the island can wreck havoc to the islands’ ecosystem. This poses an especially big problem because a very high percentage of species (80% of birds, 97% of reptiles, more than 30% of plants and more than 20% of marine life) are exclusive to the Galapagos, and can be found nowhere else on earth.

In fact, introduction of new species by humans is directly correlated with the drastic decrease, and in some cases extinction, of different geneses of the famous giant tortoises found throughout the islands.

Many of the exotic species that threaten the island’s flora and fauna begin their rapid takeover through agriculture in the highlands of San Cristobal. Yet the highlands, although an essential aspect of the island’s delicate eco-system, have been almost completely ignored by other conservation and government agencies.

Luckily for San Cristóbal, Ecuador’s Jatun Sacha Foundation has a biological reserve deep in the highlands where volunteers come to make a difference. With their hard work in different areas of conservation, such as reforestation, Jatun’s Sacha’s volunteers are revitalizing the island from the ground up.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

One street, three social classes


Christine Rushton, Murrow Backpack Journalist

An image of an Antiguan street in Guatemala. Christine Rushton | Murrow College

Consider the image of an Antiguan street on a Saturday in Guatemala.

On one corner sits a native woman adorned in a wool shawl; the jewel-toned design reflects the pattern indicative of her village, and the attire advertises the similarly colored scarves she sells.

Across the cobblestone path stands an American tourist bending down to hand a purple-clad Guatemalan girl 20 Quetzals. He takes the three handmade headbands he bought, and then points to his camera, indicating he would like a photo of her.

Blocking traffic, a bride and groom step out of a black waxed BMW in the center of the street. A trail of bridesmaids and groomsmen parade in the direction of the centuries-old Catholic Church.

Poor. Privileged. Unaware.

Heading into the last day of reporting in Guatemala, I opted to put down my pen and focus on uninterrupted observation. Photos ceased toward the end of the day, allowing the memories to burn into my mind.

Tourists and vendors flock to Antigua, a city built by the Mayans and preserved by the money visitors pump in to the local shops. Looking at the volcanoes surrounding the city, I thought about the people who shared their stories with me throughout the week. Like the mountainous beasts with which they share their home, the beauty of their faces contain the turmoil bubbling within.

Corn tortillas for sale at a doorway in Antigua.      Christine Rushton | Murrow College

Workers repair the roofs of Antigua to maintain its quality. Christine Rushton | Murrow College

One man, Miguel, I met on the curb beneath Antigua’s famous yellow clock arch.

He sat in the quiet of the afternoon with his sun-kissed wrinkled fingers curled around a pointed paintbrush. The palette balanced on his left knee held blends of purples, reds and yellows. Words on his grey cotton shirt read “Old Navy.”

Squatting to flip through his work displayed against the cement wall, I took the moment to trace with my eyes each stenciled line slightly hidden beneath brush strokes. Within the dried flecks lay an image of his home.

I didn’t notice the hand until it lifted the cardboard canvas away. Miguel wanted to share his story with me. Smiling with each foreign word, he and I treaded through a conversation mixed with Spanish and English.

Antigua has been his home since birth, he said. He has painted on the streets in order to survive for the last 13 years.

But, unlike the artists across the street marketing prints masquerading as originals, Miguel sells stories. In Spanish calligraphy, he wrote the history of the arch in the painting I bought on the canvasback.

Miguel writing the history of the painting for me. Christine Rushton | Murrow College
Then he signed and dated, allowing the ink to bleed into the fibers like his face burning into my memory.

Back in the United States, I will put Miguel’s painting next to the canvas I collected from Cuba.

Each shows the faces of those I’ve traced; each shows the faces of those I will soon outline.

Christine Rushton | Murrow College

Monday, March 24, 2014

Feeding the children of Guatemala


Christine Rushton, Murrow Backpack Journalist

This Guatemalan baby is recovering from malnutrition.   Christine Rushton | Murrow College

He weighed 15 pounds at 18-months-old. Babies his age average 25 pounds.

Supporting the head of the malnourished Guatemalan child, I listened as his caregivers explained the stinted start to his life. Children in Guatemala often go without the proper diet for growth in their critical first few years; money is too scarce.

Tears in her eyes, Hearts in Motion volunteer Janet Holloway asked one of the nurses, “Will they be OK?”  

Until the brain develops, only time will tell.

Nurses and volunteers at the HIM nutrition clinic provide a community center for the local children in Gualan, Guatemala, so that the next generation can receive help in the early days of development. Once a week, the center invites about 100 children under the age of 12 in for a group meal.

Giggling at my camera as I held it up to take a photo, one boy cleared his portion of watermelon, beans and rice. That plate of food may be the only he receives that day.

A Guatemalan boy participates in the weekly feed at HIM's nutrition center. Christine Rushton | Murrow College

Casey Leo, the HIM nutrition center coordinator, said many of the children sitting at the handmade wooden tables live in families that cannot afford balanced meals.

“Some kids arrive with food leftover from their lunch still on their mouth, while others don’t get breakfast or dinner that day,” she said.

Casey has lived in Guatemala for five-and-a-half years working with HIM. Accustomed to seeing the dire circumstances surrounding her home, she can focus on teaching the children manners they likely would not learn at home.

Gualan children wait behind the gates for the weekly HIM feed.     Christine Rushton | Murrow College

Local children line up to wash for their meal.      Christine Rushton | Murrow College

Students and volunteers on the HIM trip helped line the children up to wash their hands. Using a basin to pour bottled water over their hands, each one took a turn scrubbing off the grime of the Gualan streets.

Children at the Zacapa HIM nutrition center wash before eating.      Christine Rushton | Murrow College

Tables then filled as girls, boys, infants, and pre-teens took seats to wait their turn. After a group prayer, each received their meal and a plastic cup brimming with rice milk.

Together they cleared and thanked the staff when the meal finished. The process took under an hour, but each walked away full bellies and clean hands.

The final task for the week completed, the crew took the opportunity to pull the children around in red wagons, rock the babies to sleep, and pass around a coconut from the tree outside to try.

For me, I found a quiet spot to sit at the edge of the property.

Overlooking the valley below, I took pause to reflect as a human, not as a journalist. The faces locked in my camera’s memory cards have real hardship in their lives. They have stories, but they also are the story.

Volunteers who make trips like the HIM crew make a difference, but the solution lies in cultural change. Economics, politics and opportunity all support futures for children like the 100 who get to enter the wrought iron gates once a week for a meal.

If he survives, the baby I held in my arms may someday build a life.

The HIM nutrition center in Gualan, Guatemala.      Christine Rushton | Murrow College

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Always learning "more"


Christine Rushton, Murrow College Backpack Journalist

Jeremiah, 8, at the HIM physical therapy clinic in Zacapa.      Christine Rushton | Murrow College

His eyes locked on the blue bag containing the sour gummy worms. Unable to speak, he lifted his hands, clustered the fingers on each and tapped the tips together.
Jeremiah dangled the red worm between his teeth as his mother applauded his first attempt at American Sign Language. At 8 years old, he had never received testing for his hearing. When the speech and hearing team from WSU noticed his unresponsive behavior, they took him to the HIM clinic in Zacapa.

Jeremiah enjoying his red gummy worm.            Christine Rushton | Murrow College

“The sign on the door says, ‘50 Quetzals, or see the boss,’” HIM physical therapist Nancy Winiecki said. The cost, which equals about $6.50, "keeps the lights on, but the physical therapy is more important.”
Paying with watermelons, mangoes, chickens, and hugs, Nancy’s patients offer what they can in exchange for physical therapy sessions. HIM helps her run one of the only clinics in the region. Patients needing the treatments after surgeries and injuries would otherwise have to travel three hours to Guatemala City, a trek most can’t afford.
Lacking in medical knowledge, I had no inkling that Jeremiah had a profound loss of hearing when he galloped toward me this morning. Only his small hand in mine and toothy smile caught my attention.
“The reason deaf people put their ear to speakers is so they can feel the vibration,” WSU speech and hearing student Hannah Bowley said.
Hannah helped teach Jeremiah the sign for “more,” and with our Spanish translator, provided his mother with the information on how to keep improving her son’s communication. She knew Jeremiah had trouble hearing, but did not have the audiogram needed to enroll him into the local school for the deaf.
Now, he can get the help he needs.

Dr. Amy Meredith evaluating a Guatemalan boy.    Christine Rushton | Murrow College

Observing the evaluations with Dr. Amy Meredith, a professor at WSU, I met mother after mother dedicated to helping their disabled child regardless of the time and effort. Darwin, a young boy with cerebral palsy, comes in to the clinic to strengthen his body and mind.

Darwin with his mom playing in the clinic.        Christine Rushton | Murrow College

Having fought fires, observed operations and crouched in a burning dump this week, I felt prepared for playing with children. But a determined Darwin took me out when he climbed his ramp and pegged me in the head with a foam yellow ball.
I believe the industry professionals call it combat reporting.

Darwin moments after nailing me in the head with a ball.   Christine Rushton | Murrow College

Flipping through my notepad with the Guatemalan blood-orange sunset setting on the horizon, I stopped at an interview with an HIM volunteer, Arlyn Buck. She is a Guatemalan native who grew up in the United States.
Her mother, she said, would fast at night just to feed her children when they had no money. Her philosophy: Never forget your home and always give back to those who most need a hand.

Christine Rushton | Murrow College

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Relieving dental pain in hills of Guatemala

Christine Rushton, Murrow College Backpack Journalist

A young Guatemalan woman in the hills of Zacapa.         Christine Rushton | Murrow College

Face wrinkled with the lines of life, the Guatemalan mother cupped her daughter’s face with her hands to whisper one word.
“Hermosa.” Beautiful.
Just seconds before, I had bent down between them to share the photo I had captured of the woman’s daughter. Living with Down Syndrome, the 35-year-old turned toward her mother as the creases along her eyes crinkled with a smile.
It was the first time she had seen her own face.

Karen with HIM hugs a young woman waiting at the dental clinic. Christine Rushton | Murrow College

In a mountain village two hours from Zacapa, the Hearts in Motion dental crew set up a triage clinic to pull teeth for the locals on Tuesday. The team stood in the bed of barred-in pickup trucks to drive an hour up the rocky road.
The Guatemalan woman who asked for the photo had arrived that afternoon for help relieving her aching tooth. She and about 40 other locals gathered at the shed, the largest building available for the doctors to pull teeth. 
Jumping from station to station, I noticed mouths of babies, mouths of adults and mouths of the elderly all filled with rot. Age did not seem to factor into the issue.
Dr. Steve Woodard, an oral surgeon from Spokane, Wash., explained that the Guatemalans put sugar in their water and eat a diet of sugar-laden foods. Soda in the country is less expensive than water, and money drives their decisions.

Dr. Steve Woodard with a patient.           Christine Rushton | Murrow College

His first patient, a girl clutching a brown teddy bear, opened her mouth to reveal four rotted teeth in the front of her top row. Dr. Woodard pulled them all.
For the village the team visited today, corn is the primary source of food; corn contains a high percentage of natural sugar.

The triage dental clinic in the mountains.         Christine Rushton | Murrow College

On the bus trip home, Dr. John Miller shared his experience as an oral surgeon volunteering in the country.
“Those kids today didn’t even know why they were there,” he said.
Dr. Miller narrowed the dental problem to four contributing factors:
1. Low price of soda.
2. Limited access to dentistry.
3. Lack of education on proper hygiene.
4. No money for toothbrushes and toothpaste.
The people do not have the resources to preserve their dental hygiene. Those that have permanent teeth pulled have to rely on mushed or soft food for nutrients the rest of their life. The doctors leave knowing they soothed temporary pain.
But as Dr. Miller commented in reference to the shortcomings of the dentists’ efforts, the economy and education system does not meet the need.

A mountain village in Zacapa.             Christine Rushton | Murrow College

Monday, March 17, 2014

Lecture gone live: fighting a fire


Christine Rushton, Murrow Backpack Journalist

A  flame left from a fire Monday in Zacapa, Guatemala.   Christine Rushton | Murrow College

Crouching in smoldering ash, I felt sweat pour down my face. Smoke rose around my lens as the army soldier to my right pointed at my feet. The soles of my tennis shoes had started to melt.
Monday started when I branched off from the HIM crews and tagged along with Spokane Fire Chief Bruce Holloway. He travels to Guatemala with his wife to train local volunteer firefighters and military crews for the worst.
Taking notes in my fold-down school chair, I expected to spend the day following Bruce’s lectures at the station in Zacapa. But an emergency call summoned the fire crew, and the lesson went live.
The team prepares the fire hose.    Christine Rushton | Murrow College
A field in the downtown region had caught fire and the 95-degree heat and wind fed the burn. Bruce said the Guatemalan people burn trash, and often a spark will jump to the dry fields.
With only two donated fire engines and a few ambulances to serve 65 communities, the team of volunteers and visiting Guatemalan army members piled on with shovels and machetes. Scarred by the flames that had nearly finished smoldering, the field where crops once stood now lay dead.
Bruce commanded the team to dig trenches and snuff out lingering flames. In the brush, he stopped to tell me about the power of changing winds.  
Guatemalan army soldiers beat down smoldering flames.    Christine Rushton | Murrow College
One Guatemalan soldier digs trenches in the field.    Christine Rushton | Murrow College
When firefighters in Arizona died last year, Bruce said the winds had shifted in a thunderstorm 180-degrees. The crew did not have time to escape.
Always fight the fire from back to front, he said.
But Bruce hangs on to what firefighters call “gallows humor;” they joke about the flames that steal the oxygen of life.
“We are careful around other people, but it’s the only way to keep our sanity,” he said.
The volunteer crews survive on fundraising and donations. The people face fires due mostly to people burning trash in uncontrolled settings.
Juan Alvarez, a volunteer at the Zacapa station, said the city once provided 2,500 quetzals a month, but hasn’t since September 2013.
A woman firefighter douses a stump.     Christine Rushton | Murrow College
After two hours fighting, the team reduced the threat to steam. Despite a thick layer of soot and sweat coating each soldier’s skin, smiles stretched across faces.
My legs had cuts. My freckles had disappeared underneath black debris. But my camera had filled with photos proving the determination of a dedicated team.
Never doubt the heart of a volunteer on the front lines.
Christine Rushton | Murrow College

Cleft palates, sweaty scrubs and healed smiles


Christine Rushton, Murrow Backpack Journalist

Victor Ramirez.                                              Christine Rushton | Murrow College

All 37 pounds of 7-year-old Victor Ramirez twisted against the nurses’ hold. In his anesthesia-hazed mind, the Guatemalan boy jerked out of his IV drip as his face contorted in pain.

Victor came in to Hearts in Motion’s temporary hospital for surgery to fix his cleft palate. With the help of HIM volunteer doctor Ken Stein, Victor will now have the ability to chew his food.

Dr. Ken Stein administers a local anesthetic.   Christine Rushton | Murrow College
Watching the surgery in scrubs four sizes too big and with my camera in hand, I realized I would not often get the opportunity to observe a working operating room. The next two hours became critical for both me and the boy on the table.

Dr. Stein, a plastic surgeon from Chicago, stitched sutures in the non-air conditioned 100-degree heat to help Guatemalans like Victor who have disfigured lips and palates. Without the surgery, the patients would continue to struggle with eating and breathing.

Victor Ramirez.                                                       Christine Rushton | Murrow College
Forced to mash meals between their fingers and push what remains into their throat, patients often suffer malnutrition.

Before I met Victor, I shook hands with a Guatemalan girl named Heidy Avalos who had successfully recovered from her surgery four years ago. Her case was so advanced she had to travel to Spokane, Wash., to visit another HIM volunteer Dr. Mark Paxton.
Janet Holloway, Heidy’s host mom in Spokane, said she remembers when Heidy stayed with them for her surgery.
“She would take a French fry, smash it with her fingers, stuff it on the roof of her mouth, and swallow,” Janet said.
For Heidy, the worst is over; for Victor, the recovery has just begun.

The start of Victor's cleft palate surgery.                      Christine Rushton | Murrow College
In post-operation, the nurses shuffled Victor to his bed as they sterilized the 1940’s equipment they had to borrow in the make-shift operating room. I followed, camera in hand, to better understand what the children have to endure just to live.

Hours later, shirts drenched in sweat, supplies strewn about the hospital halls, the HIM volunteers set out for the hotel. But before hitting the cobblestone streets, I stole one last glance at Victor.
The photo I took of him by his mother speaks more words than I can write.

Victor and his mother.                                Christine Rushton | Murrow College

Saturday, March 15, 2014

In trash, searching for survival

Christine Rushton, Murrow College Backpack Journalist
The dumps in Zacapa, Guatemala.              Christine Rushton | Murrow College

Squatting in a heap of rotting trash, I lifted my camera to focus on a young Guatemala girl. She paused at my movement and tightly clutched the treasure she had just found: a discarded, teal plastic bottle ring. Her feet, bare and smeared with the black ash, rested on shards of broken glass and decomposing fruit.
Christine Rushton | Murrow College

Against a background of people scouring, collecting and burning garbage in the 95-degree weather, she looked into my lens and smiled.

The volunteers working with Hearts in Motion to bring supplies and aid to the people in Guatemala know the need outweighs what the team can offer. However, one student on the trip said if one life is changed, then the trip was worth the effort.

Karen Scheeringa-Parra, the executive director of HIM, said, “It’s not about the Tylenol, it’s about the relationship.” She explained that showing people compassion lasts longer in memory than any medicine.

One HIM team on Saturday put together lunches of black bean and rice sandwiches to bring for the families living in the dumps. The line of Guatemalans following the buses they knew carried food stretched down the plastic-lined road. For them, a meal usually consists of the leftovers they can dig out of the city’s trash.

A veteran-volunteer for HIM looked out at the landscape and asked me if I could write about this experience. He said photos tell only part of the story; pictures can’t capture the smell.

Breathing in the aroma of putrid decomposition and burning plastic, I shoved down the urge to cry. The Guatemalan girl still smiles despite her unsanitary living conditions. As I watched her walk to put her new discovery in the tarp-covered shelter she calls home, I realized that smile reflected the hope to which she must cling.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Welcomed by a Guatemalan fire

Christine Rushton, Murrow College Backpack Journalist
As the world opens to welcome a global community, journalists gain the opportunity to explore cultures beyond the limits of their backyards. Foreign reporting has existed successfully since the days of Edward R. Murrow reporting from London. However, students breaking into the industry have to combat a dwindling availability of jobs. The Murrow College at WSU offered me the chance to enter the embargoed borders of Cuba in May 2013, and now I venture with Hearts in Motion to Guatemala. During my 10 days on the ground, I will blog, interview the doctors and students performing surgeries on the locals and report on the issues. Follow along as I pursue the visual and written long-form journalism I hope to soon call my career.

Rushton Guatemala 3-23-14 from Christine Rushton on Vimeo.

Fire hung in a rim on the horizon. Tipped in blood red, the wings of the airplane tilted in descent toward the valley’s mouth, noted for the nearby volcanos. The ground drew closer; the flames climbed higher.

Christine Rushton | Murrow College
It was 5:30 a.m. on Friday and the plane leading toward Guatemala City had just made the dawn-hour landing. Flat ground filled with litter-strewn streets seemed to cower against the highlands surrounding the city. With my group of students and professionals with Hearts in Motion (HIM), we started the trek from the airport to Zacapa, the area in which we would spend most of our time working on the medical mission trip.

About 19 HIM volunteers crammed in a bus meant for 12 for the three-hour journey. But one side-look at the Guatemalan public transport with people hanging off the sides just to catch a ride, and I knew we fit in. Just like when I traveled to Cuba, I put the peoples’ behavior in the perspective of the limited resources upon which they must rely.

Christine Rushton | Murrow College
For one man, this meant hiding under a blanket in the back of a truck.

I noticed the man as we headed out of Guatemala City. Truck bed teaming with rubber tires, the brown-stained blanket set in the corner rustled slightly. His head peeked out when he adjusted his position, but I’d already witnessed the attempt to catch a free ride.

Heading into a week of observing people  support solutions to medical, construction, dental, or social problems Guatemalans face, I know this man isn’t the last I will see take a dangerous chance. As I learned in Cuba and will continue to learn in Guatemala, people in underdeveloped countries often turn to a concept foreign to our own: risking life is worth gaining life.  

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Just Keep Swimming

While the Galapágos is one of those most biologically diverse places in the world,  there's even more of that diversity waiting to be seen just below the coastline. Luckily for me, just off the coast of San Cristobal is what some believe to be one of the best snorkeling and SCUBA diving spots in the world.

Jutting out of the water is Kicker Rock, otherwise known to locals as León Dormido or The Sleeping Lion. There, travelers can swim with many sea creatures including green sea turtles, eagle rays, sharks, and dolphins, not to mention an expansive variety of fish.

Although I am a relatively strong swimmer, my snorkeling experience isn’t anything to brag about. The few times I had ever put on a snorkel mask and flippers were in the lakes around my hometown, where the diversity of species to see is lacking to say the very least. With that being said, I felt as if I could not have been more lucky to have my first real snorkeling experience in the Galápagos.

After checking out my wetsuit, flippers, and mask, I boarded a boat with two other girls from Jatun Sacha. Through pre-trip research, I knew that if I went snorkeling at Kicker Rock there would be a very good possibly I would be swimming with sharks. However, I have to admit that being mere minutes away from that possibility made me slightly nervous. Luckily I wasn’t the only one on board with this fear, and our tour guide assured us we had nothing to worry about.

The extraordinary marine ecosystem of the Galápagos is due to the various currents that flow through the islands. The mixture of tropical and cool water from these currents bring many rich nutrients to the surface. Many fish come to feed on the nutrients, and in turn, many sharks come to feed on the fish. Because of this, there is no competition for food. Most importantly to me and other swimmers, this means sharks are not hungry enough to try to take a bite of a human. Still, nobody wants to be the one person who’s the exception to the rule...

Either way, as soon as I jumped from the boat to the water, any concerns I previously had were immediately washed away. I can now say for myself that the old adage about the ocean being a whole other world has a lot of truth to it. With your head in the water, most sounds of the outside world fade away.

The first thing seen gliding below me was a giant eagle ray. I previously had no idea just how enormous these creatures actually were. The first one that peacefully glided below me must have been as wide as a minivan is long.

Soon after that, out guide pointed out a couple of sharks swimming deep below us. At first they were difficult to see, but then the guide began gently slapping the top of the water’s surface.
The light clapping sound was almost like a signal to the nearby sharks, and soon there gathered what must have been close to fifty Galápagos and white finned sharks below us. They remained deep enough to keep a safe distance, but the nervousness I had previous to entering the water remained somewhere above the surface. At this point, I only felt a sense of wonder.

While swimming with sharks is always a cool experience to have, my favorite part of the snorkeling experience were the sea turtles. Whenever I spotted one, I always found myself straying from the group in order to get a closer look.

As time went on, I became increasingly comfortable in my surroundings. Soon, I was diving down as deep and as long I could. More than anything, I wanted to get a good shot from my GoPro of nearby fish, turtles, and eventually sharks. I must admit as comfortable as I became, swimming toward a shark still left me with a feeling of apprehension when the reality of what I was doing crossed my mind.

No matter what nerves I previously had, snorkeling ended up being one of my most treasured experiences from this trip. Seeing an occasional turtle or fish surface for a brief second from the deck of a ship can be exciting, but it doesn’t even begin to compare to the incredible world that lies just below the water’s surface.

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Slow and Steady Recovery

I feel as if when you make a trip to the Galápagos Islands, the one thing you can’t return in good conscience without having seen are the giant tortoises. On my fifth day, I finally got to cross that event off my to-do list.

Before the arrival of humans, San Cristóbal was home to two different subspecies of giant tortoises. One of these subspecies could be found on the south end of the island, but unfortunately became extinct in 1933 due to extraction by whalers in previous centuries.

The other subspecies of tortoises (Geonchelone Chatmensis) are located on the northeastern end of the island. They have been a little luckier in their fates. These tortoises are estimated to have a current population of around 1,400. Although that number may seem high for such a small area of the world, these tortoises are still listed as "vulnerable" on the endangered species list.

As vulnerable as they sill may be, this population would surely be far less without the help of the Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado; San Cristóbal’s tortoise reserve and breeding center.

The Jatun Sacha crew headed up to the Galapaguera after a few hours work at the station's base camp that morning. The area immediately around the Galapaguera is rather sparse, and so we spent the first part of the afternoon replanting and watering special endemic plants to help restore the area back to its natural habitat. Like all the work at Jatun Sacha, this was no easy task. The area is naturally dry, and we had to use a pickaxe to dig the holes in the ground. Watering these plants was no easy task either. We had to fill up jugs with water from a trough, and lug the heavy containers a good distance to get to the different plants before we started the process over again.

Once we were finished, we were rewarded with a break and a visit to the Galapaguera itself. The reserve includes an interpretation center, breeding center, and interpretive trails to walk and view grown turtles in their semi-natural habitat.

With my camera in hand I set off up the first trail, and a short while later came across the breeding center itself. Galapagos tortoises mate once a year, and after that, each female tortoise lays anywhere from 12-16 eggs. Park rangers go out and collect these eggs once they are laid and bring them to the Galapaguera where they are placed in a dark box for 30 days. After that first month, the incubation process begins, and continues for about 90 days until the eggs hatch. The baby tortoises are then transferred to growing pens where they will remain for the first two years of their lives, until they are big enough to fend off most predators in the wild. They are then transferred back to their exact nesting spot, and live the remainder of their lives in their natural habitats.

If I wasn’t aware the baby tortoises I was looking at were of the Galápagos variety, I would have never guessed they would eventually become the giants their parents are. All of them were small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, (had I been able to hold them, which I was not) but have the potential to reach up to 880 pounds in their adult lives.  

Although over hunting did not help the tortoise population, this was not the main reason tortoise populations on San Cristóbal began to dwindle.  When humans settled on the island, they brought along a variety of animals like rats, cats, dogs and cattle. While these animals also contributed to the decline of the tortoise population, none were as harmful to the species as the goats.

To put it one way, goats are not picky eaters. When they came to the Galápagos they ate just about every plant in sight, including the bark off of trees. By doing so they simultaneously destroyed the giant tortoises' natural habitat and source of food. Had the tortoises evolved to be much faster creatures, it is possible they would have been able to compete with the goats. Of course, their genes have yet to make that evolutionary change, and therefore the more agile goats were able to completely overgraze an area before the tortoises knew what hit them.

The way goats graze is also much different from other animals. Cows, for example, graze by cutting down plants and grass with their teeth, allowing them to regrow eventually. When a goat grazes, they pull the plants roots completely out of the ground, leaving no possibility for regrowth, forever changing the environment.

On top of everything, these goats had no regard for tortoise nesting areas. On their way to find new food they would completely trample eggs in nests, and crush all possibility of future generations of tortoises.

In recent years, Ecuador's National Park Service set forth a plan to begin eradicating the island's goats. By this point, the flocks of goats were so dense hunters began the process by aerial hunting via helicopters. This method quickly and effectively reduced the goat population, but the job didn't end there. The next step was to hunt the goats by land. Hunters were aided by specially trained dogs, raised and trained within the breeding center itself.

Finally, the next, and possibly more interesting portion of the eradication process began. This process was known as “The Judas Project” and used special “Judas” goats (who as you soon see were fittingly named after the biblical figure) to continue the eradication process. Now that the goats weren’t so densely populated all over the island, they were a lot more difficult to find.  Because of this, the National Park Service came up with a plan to designate special sterilized goats. Fitted with a tracking collar, the Judas goats were sent back into the wild where, being the social animals they are, would eventually find a new flock to join and through their tacking collars lead the hunters right to it. The hunters would then kill off all the goats except the Judas, and the process would begin again. Over time this method led to the eventual eradication of goats on San Cristóbal Island.

While this may not be the happiest story for the goats, the project was extremely effective in the extermination of a serious threat to the declining population of rare tortoises. Although the regrowth of the tortoise population has taken years, the results are continuously showing that the numbers are heading in the right direction. What began as a problem caused by humans is now a problem being solved by humans; a slow and steady process for gentle giants of the same nature.