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.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda

Rachael Trost reporting

The Beifengxia base of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda is tucked about 150 kilometers from Chengdu, the capitol of the Sichuan Providence in southwest China. CCRCGP was formed in 1980 through a partnership between the World Wildlife Fund and China in an effort to revive the declining panda population. The center focuses on research, education, and conservation of the endangered giant panda.
Logo of CCRCGP on a truck at the center. 

There is speculation about the exact number of Giant Pandas in the world, but the figures fall between 2,000 and 3,000, roughly around 1,500 in the wild. Although classified as carnivorous mammals, 99% of a panda’s diet consists of bamboo. Scientists agree the switch from meat to bamboo took place about 4.2 million years ago, but no answer as to why.

One reason CCRCGP is a leader in panda conservation revolves around panda breeding. Female pandas are only in estrus two to three day out of the year, marking a time frame of time for breeding. Breeding pandas in the Scientists and Researchers at the center have developed unique techniques such as showing pandas videos of mating to encourage the same behavior. Along with these issues, the center is growing information surrounding hormones, panda personalities, and information on the habits of these creatures. CCRCGP also prides itself on its efforts in  rearing and teaching new panda mothers.

The center here near the city of Ya’an boosts to hold over 80 captive bred Pandas, by far the largest number of pandas held in captivity in the world. Certain parts of the park are open to the public, while a majority is staff only research and breeding areas. The most popular destination within the center is the Panda Kindergarten. There visitors can find young pandas between the ages of 6 months to 2 years old playing together in an outside enclosure.

A worker bringing rocks to a new enclosure. Many workers were residents of
nearby small towns who need extra income. 
The center suffered a significant set-back after a 5.2 earthquake struck the region in 2008. The quake destroyed several panda enclosures and led to the relocation of nearly 20 pandas from the center to other zoos across China. As the center is in a pretty rural location, it took several days for assistance to reach the pandas and on-site employees. Many keepers are credited for keeping their pandas alive and calm during the ordeal.  The center is still working on rebuilding certain enclosures that were destroyed.

Staff members said the goal for this year is for at least 10 more panda cubs to be born, hopefully 12. It always depends on the success of researchers and some artificial insemination.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Jatun Sacha

Ever since Ecuador made its decision to designate all the uninhabited land of the Galápagos as a national park, conservation efforts to help preserve the islands’ biodiversity have slowly been reversing the damage made. However, without the help of different non-profit organizations, these improvements would probably be a lot less prominent. The Jatun Sacha Biological Reserve in San Cristóbal, where I spent most of my time on the island, is one of these organizations.

Tucked away deep in the highland forests of San Cristóbal, Jatun Sacha’s station is a gem mostly out of reach from the typical tourist. Right outside of town, the roads immediately turn to dirt, and as we make out way up into the forest, they gradually become more narrow and muddy. The vegetation around the roads also becomes increasingly thick. I eventually feel in awe of the fact anyone would have ever been able to make their way through the thick vegetation and steep hills to make a settlement.

The station itself is a lot more modest than I had imagined. There are only a few small cabins, a mess hall, and two houses for the volunteers, each with their own toilets and showers. These structures were all simply built by past volunteers from concrete and wood.

 Besides building the station, the volunteers work towards the foundation’s goal of conserving the highlands. These highlands, although a pivotal part of the island’s delicate eco-system, have been almost completely neglected by other conservation and governmental agencies.

The Galápagos are a popular tourist destination, but lack of fruit and vegetable production on the island itself means hotels and restaurants must import the produce from Ecuador’s mainland in order to cater to visitors needs. However, quarantine regulations are consistently ignored, and it is projected that at least two exotic species enter the island each day. These species may become invasive and threaten, or even lead to the extinction of endemic plant and animal species on the island.

My first day at the station, fellow volunteers and myself worked to help eradicate Mora bushes around the immediate vicinity of the station.

Mora is the species of plants that the blackberry and raspberry belong to, and is one of the more aggressive of invasive species.

I think it’s important to note that the work the Jatun Sacha volunteers do is not easy by any means. Hacking down Mora bushes in the middle of the hot and humid forest while mosquitos swarm around you is physically demanding in every sense.

Even so, it was amazing how these volunteers, who came from all over the world, and in many cases are there for weeks and months at a time, maintained such positive attitudes.

The Galápagos are a destination most travelers always dream of going, but most people imagine spending their time laying on the beach, and hiking amongst exotic creatures.
It takes a special breed of people to happily spend the majority of their time on the islands doing such demanding and important labor; tucked away deep in San Cristóbal’s forest highlands, the Jatun Sacha foundation is the place to find them.