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Galápagos Monday: When Conservation Means Killing

Judas knew what he was doing when he double-crossed his friend Jesus. “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” he asked the conspiring priests in the famous Bible story.

The story of the Judas Goat is more tragic. She had no idea that she was leading her friends to their deaths.

Her captors sterilized her first, then coated her with hormones so she reeked of fertility. Then they collared her with a radio-tracking device and cut her loose. Nearby male goats smelled her and sought her out. As soon as they found her, people swooped in and shot them. The hunters saved Judas, though, so they could repeat the set-up again and again.

It was all part of a six-year, $6 million project in which conservationists killed nearly 80,000 feral goats on Santiago Island in the Galápagos. Similar goat genocides had happened on 128 other islands, including nearby Pinta, but never on any as large as Santiago, which spans 144,470 acres. The goats, introduced by sailers hundreds of years earlier, were decimating all flavors of vegetation there, putting ground birds, giant tortoises and other endemic species in danger. So officials — conservationists from the Galápagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation — decided the goats had to go.

The logistical details are fascinating. The first phase, from December 2001 to January 2004, was ground hunting. Researchers recruited locals, many of whom had never hunted before, and taught them how to use hunting dogs, rifles, radios, telemetry and GPS. Then they started the cold and systematic business of killing. I let out a little gasp when reading a description of one of the techniques from a research paper:

During the first 2 years of the campaign, we corralled goats in the highlands where they concentrated during dry months. We constructed temporary corrals with winged extensions of netting (10 x 10-cm mesh) strung between trees or posts at an average of 1.8 m high, with a skirt hanging on the ground weighted down with rocks. We used winged extensions, up to 6.5 km long, to funnel animals into corrals. Goats were mustered into corrals by hunters on foot or horseback, along with the aid of air horns and rifle shots. We euthanized corralled goats in accordance with American Association of Zoo Veterinarians guidelines.

I looked up those guidelines. For wildlife management of goats, they recommend an overdose of succinylcholine followed by a stun-gun or shotgun to the head.

The ground-hunting phase of the project killed 53,782 goats. The second phase was three months of aerial attacks, by specialized hunters from New Zealand using semi-automatic rifles. This video tells you all you need to know about Phase 2:

Ground and aerial hunting wiped out 98.5 percent of the goat population on Santiago. But the thing about eradication is, you can’t just do a pretty good job. If one pregnant goat manages to escape, all of your progress could be reversed. As the researchers explain in that paper: “For large-scale eradications to succeed and maximize the conservation return on investment, an eradication ethic is essential. Every animal, from the first to the last, must be treated as the last animal on the island. The campaign must embrace a zero-escape policy.” That’s why the Judas Goat is so important: she finishes the job.

There were 213 Judas Goats involved in the Santiago job: males, females and hormone-doused females. The latter, nicknamed Mata Haris, were most effective. Between June 2004 and November 2005, Judas Goats entrapped 1,174 others, completing the eradication. A year later, the researchers came back and covered the entire island again with hunters and dogs. The only goats left were Judas Goats.

At the time, it was the largest and most successful mammal eradication project ever done. Previous efforts had taken two or three decades to kill far fewer animals, partly because they only used a few dozen Judas Goats. After the win on Santiago, authorities launched another eradication campaign on the much larger island of Isabela. The top half of the island, which is not inhabited by humans, is now also clear of goats. On both islands, after the goats left the vegetation came back with a vengeance, and so did some endemic species. On Santiago, the population of the Galápagos rail, a brown ground bird, went up more than 10 times.

Rationally, I should have no trouble with these mass killings. I’m not a vegetarian and not particularly fond of goats. The researchers seem to have followed ethical standards, and they’re doing it all in the name of biodiversity. And yet, emotionally, hearing about these killing sprees makes me queasy.

I’m not the only one. After I got back to the States, one of my fellow travelers wrote me this in an email:

I really enjoyed the trip, but the one big downer for me was the extermination of the goats and the donkeys and their very anti-Darwin approach…

Everything has a right to live. The goats could have been herded and shipped to Australia.  Not as cheap or as macho as slaughtering them from helicopters, but then no-kill shelters cost more to run than kill shelters. As you can guess I did not contribute to the continued extermination of non-endemic species in the Galapagos.

It makes me wonder if these eradication campaigns, for all the good they’ve done, also have serious downsides. Are they, in fact, anti-Darwinian (in any way that matters, scientifically)? And is this negative emotional reaction causing lots of tourists to hold on to money that they’d otherwise donate to conservation organizations?


This is the fifth installment of a six-week series about my recent trip to the Galápagos. You can find the other posts here.

Photo by Randal Vegter

This post was originally published on The Last Word on Nothing

18 thoughts on “Galápagos Monday: When Conservation Means Killing

  1. Actually Australia has its own huge problems with feral goats – literally millions upon millions that it does not have the resources to manage.

    Even if that weren’t the case though, shipping the problem off to another island where they will destroy that place and for someone else to deal with – kind of an asshole solution, akin to people who dump their unwanted pets on the streets or backlots. Sucks for the animal, sucks for the people having to pick up the damaged animals and deal with the mess.

    In terms of animal welfare. Trying to load feral wild goats onto ramps/trucks/ships for transport would be crueller. Prolonged stress, broken limbs, being crushed, going off food & water, overcrowding. Doing that with feral donkeys – increase that stress by a factor of 5.
    Anyone that tries to deal fairly with wild animals would never do that to them.

    It is unpleasant, but a single shot to the head by a professional hunter is over on a millisecond. The goats/ donkeys will never know the awfulness of being forced through an abattoir.

    It is the most sympathetic way of dealing with them.

  2. I’m not totally sure what to say about this, but I can say that I don’t agree with using whether it is “anti-” or “pro-” Darwnian to evaluate the ethics of wildlife management.

    But I think your fellow traveller’s objection highlights a broader point that there is a HUGE disconnect between the “feel-good” emotional appeal of various causes (such as conservation, organic farming, or curing cancer) and the “dirty” work necessary to support the cause (such as culling invasive mammals, trapping and killing gophers, and injecting cancers into mice).

  3. I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing and I will offer a couple quick thoughts: First I think that invasive (as opposed to simply non-native) species are a serious problem much of the time – I would think (although I don’t have a source handy) that anthropogenic faunal/floral exchange has caused more extinctions than anything else we do. However I detest the demonization of invasive species. A good example is lionfish – they used to be a flagship example of the beauty and diversity of coral reefs. But since they have become invasive after being moved from the Indo-Pacific to the Atlantic coast of Americas suddenly they are “the rats of the sea”. It’s the same damned animal! I understand why conservationists/managers/scientists do this – it’s a simple way to convey a basic message: ‘species X = bad’. This sort of emotionally charged simplistic garbage has consequences such as when billions of conservation dollars are pissed away on futile eradication campaigns without any grounding in evidence (purple loosestrife springs to mind). It also leads to confusion and misunderstanding and that creates fertile ground for people to assume that an idea framed like xenophobic propaganda is actually based in xenophobia (warning pdf) (example). Anyway, all this is to say that I think that your disquiet with the slaughter of the goats is entirely appropriate – much better than an attitude of unthinking hatred. I think it’s OK to feel conflicted about decisions and policies that arise out of weighing conflicting imperitives. I also have a lot of respect for people who can rationally support something like a cull without having to quash all empathy or appreciation for the animals.

  4. Nice essay, though sad. Eradicating mammals and other animals is an awful business and I don’t have anything useful to say about it right now.

    But I wonder what is meant by it being “anti-Darwinian.” I don’t think killing goats is, but I am most interested in what your correspondent meant by that. How does she understand the term “Darwinian” that she would think that?

  5. Jennie,

    I think what my co-traveler meant was that, if a species goes extinct because of natural selection, it’s fine, but if they go extinct because of our deliberate actions, then it’s akin to “playing god.” And similarly, that if the goats were thriving in the Galapagos environment, then it goes against natural selection to wipe them out. Again, I don’t agree with this view, and I think that it’s the wrong way to think about evolutionary forces, but I think that’s what they meant by anti-Darwinian.

  6. To add some fuel to the fire about “anti-Darwinian”, I’m not convinced that human behavior isn’t still a part of natural selection. In other words, at some point in history, perhaps it became disadvantageous, from an evolutionary perspective, to be a goat in the Galapagos. Why can’t human behavior be a selection pressure?

    What I’m really interested in what causes someone to see human behavior as something other than “natural”?

    1. I TOTALLY agree with you, and this is a question that’s haunted me ever since returning from the trip. Our behavior is both the reason that a lot of harmful invasive species were introduced to the Galapagos, and ALSO the reason that conservationists have been able to preserve so many endemic species. We are a complicated animal.

  7. perhaps it became disadvantageous, from an evolutionary perspective, to be a goat in the Galapagos

    Yep, right around December of 2001 🙂

    I think I’m 100% with Jason on this… the very idea of describing an action as being “against natural selection” is akin to describing an action (say, launching a space shuttle) as being “against gravity”.

    Natural selection is a process that happens and which we have learned to describe. Like other things we’ve learned to describe through science (say, flash floods or cancer), just because a deliberate human action works against the process (dams and chemotherapy) does not mean that that action is immoral simply because it is “unnatural” (of course with Jason’s caveat that we probably can’t describe ourselves as “unnatural”).

    This applies just as well to MattK’s comments on moralizing the presence of a species *only* due to whether they are endemic or “invasive”.

  8. I support these efforts completely. Island ecosystems are particularly susceptible to the introduction of exotic species.

    Mankind introduced these exotics, mankind has the responsibility to eliminate them.

    The methods used to eliminate exotics may not be palatable to some, but the alternative is often extinction for native species…slow, painful extirpation that occurs out of the sight of humanity.

    I just wish the compassion shown for exotics being exterminated was also shown for the native species that are often extinct before anything can be done.

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  10. The domestic goat “species” was not made extinct, it was just removed from one tiny area where it was introduced artificially and threatening the real extinction of other species. I’m sure Darwin would have approved for at least scientific research purposes (don’t know what conservation ethic he had).

  11. Australia already has a serious feral goat and donkey problem, thank-you very much! Also pigs, water buffaloes, feral cattle, rabbits, hares and European carp…
    Using different methods, Australian authorities are exterminating cats and rabbits from sub-antarctic Macquarie Island – giving hope for penguins, albatrosses and petrels.

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