The Galapagos Conservation Trust (GCT) is the only UK registered charity to focus exclusively on the conservation and sustainability of the Galapagos Islands. Launched in 1995 at the Royal Society, they have supported a vast array of projects in Galapagos over the last ten years.
All guests that travel with us are offered a one-year complementary membership of the GCT to help them continue their fantastic work. Indeed we recently found out that last year Think Galapagos were the single largest source of new memberships of the GCT!
Santiago and I recently attended the annual Galapagos Day held at the Royal Geographical Society and were inspired all over again (as if we needed it!) by the work that the GCT is currently involved in. On the back of this, we decided to write a series of blog posts highlighting some of the key projects that the GCT is supporting – and where your membership money ultimately ends up. The first of these is a project set up to monitor the Galapagos penguin and flightless cormorant populations in the archipelago to see how environmental changes such as El Nino affect these unique seabirds.
Galapagos Penguin and Flightless Cormorant monitoring
Galapagos penguins and flightless cormorants are found nowhere else in the world and both species have a very restricted range, which means they are far more vulnerable to environmental changes such as El Nino. Also as both birds are flightless, they are reliant on food reaching the Galapagos Islands, rather than flying and actively searching for the food in other parts of the ocean. By monitoring the health of these populations, scientists can get a clear signal of the health of the whole marine environment in Galapagos and how it’s affected by environmental changes.
El Nino – a cyclical and naturally occurring weather phenomenon – results in the warming of the waters around Galapagos when it happens every 2-7 years. When this occurs it has a serious impact on the marine wildlife that is dependent on the nutrient rich cold waters around the Galapagos. Warmer water means less nutrients and less food for the marine wildlife food chain. Although species in the Galapagos are adapted to these natural fluctuations, the Galapagos penguin and flightless cormorant face additional threats, which weaken their resilience to environmental changes. These threats include predation by introduced species such as rats and cats, over-fishing of their food resources, marine pollution and avian malaria.
Both the Galapagos penguin and the flightless cormorant have been listed as endangered on the IUCN red list. The total population of Galapagos penguins is estimated to be less than 1,000 breeding pairs and they have been considered endangered for more than a decade. Until recently, flightless cormorants were also listed as endangered but have been re-categorised as vulnerable. Although this is a positive sign, there are fears the coming El Nino may put their population under pressure again.
A fundamental component of any conservation management strategy is monitoring the existing population of a species. Since 2011, the Galapagos Conservation Trust has been funding a research project which aims provide an insight into the current status of these seabirds. The data is used to estimate ranges of penguin and cormorant survival and reproduction then assess how changes in the environment will affect the populations. Health checks are undertaken and individual birds are tested for the presence of diseases. Armed with this data, the research team are able to provide scientific advice to the Galapagos National Park Service that will help them manage the populations of these unique creatures. As you may have already read, this year’s El Nino phenomenon is predicted to be one of the strongest recorded, meaning this research is more vital than ever.