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Galápagos Week: When Conservation Means Killing

Last summer, after spending a week in the Galápagos, I wrote a six-part series for The Last Word on Nothing about what I had learned. I’m on vacation this week, so I figured it was a good time to re-publish the series for Phenomena readers. The following is the fifth installment; here’s the firstsecondthird, and fourth.


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?


Photo by Randal Vegter

This post was originally published on The Last Word on Nothing

9 thoughts on “Galápagos Week: When Conservation Means Killing

  1. When I first started reading this I thought it was going to be some bleeding heart attack on hunting. I did however read on and found it to be an interesting take on the subject at hand and not a one sided political attack on hunting and guns. This being said, there are many other aspects we have to look at. The most important of which is that sometimes killing is necessary in the act of conservation. As for it being anti-Darwinian, well this can be debated on many aspects. What I think is anti-Darwinian is introducing a foreign species into a non-native environment this almost always leads to devastating effects on endemic species.

    Now to justify my statements. I will start with the latter and list a few examples that may be more extreme than the norm but also they are not exactly rare. Lets first look at what the Asian Carp has done to the Mississippi river, it has and will cause more massive loss to native species in this river. Living less than a mile from this river and being a avid fisherman and hunter, the problem is so bad it has actually caused massive and extensive damage to humans. These fish jump when startled and many boaters now put nets around their boats to prevent the fish from being able to strike them. They also decimate breeding and brooding areas of local fish and other wild life. They have wrecked the food chain in ways that will take decades to correct if they ever are. Lets also look at the Pacu a relative of the Piranha released in New Guinea to have a higher fish population to feed the aboriginal people of the Island. The fish is normally a herbivore, it has however grown to such a large population with no natural predators that it has started attacking animals and humans with devastating effects due to it over eating the local vegetation it may have otherwise fed on. Does this seem Darwinian? I can not see any rational explanation to justify it being Darwinian and I fancy myself a very open minded person.

    Now to the first part. There are people who would kill and torture animals illegally and immorally for what ever sick pleasure they get from it. There are also those who kill animals in the most human ways they know and try very hard to keep the animals they harvest from suffering. Then there are two sides to every coin.

    That being said, some animals tend to have no natural control on their breeding and natural predation either does not exist or is over whelmed. Let us for a moment take a look at the common field mouse and the cotton tail rabbit for our example; both of these species breed extremely rapidly often resulting in population explosions beyond what their environment can handle. If you live in a rural area you may notice that some years you see rabbits and mice everywhere and other years you hardly see one. This is because the population explosion causes an unsustainable environment and makes spreading disease and the starvation of many animals. We also see this in waterfowl populations that find preservation where predation and hunting have been removed. Not only those issues but we also notice that large numbers stop migrating resulting in even more compounded issues. Whit all the examples we see in this paragraph we get the problem of interbreeding which results in deformities, sterility and other issues.

    We often forget that in the Darwinian evolutionary ranks lie the homo sapiens. Why so many remove humans from the equation is beyond me. I am however an evolutionary creationist. We humans are products of Darwinian evolution there fore it can be argued that what ever we do to our environment is in fact Darwinian and natural in that we humans are natural products of Darwinism. Though with our ability to affect the environment in devastating ways like other animals some of us are intelligent enough to realize our harm and correct it. Which brings us to the goat. We introduced it to this area and it is devastating native species some of which are engendered to the point of extinction partly due to our introducing this goat. A species of which is no where near endangered, so where then is the harm of eradication? I honestly see it as a solution to a terrible mistake us humans created. But then I am no expert and I am sure greater minds than my own can refute all I have said here.

  2. Let me apologize for the grammatical and spelling errors. I should have read over it before posting. If you need anything cleared up please ask and I will try my best. Thank you.

  3. What does “anti-Darwinian” or for that matter “Darwinian” mean in this context? You are down the rabbit whole right away when you use these terms. You sound like a creationist. Humans slaughtering goats or burning the island to the ground are not anything Darwinian or non-Darwinian in any way I can think of. Humans are part of nature and anything we do either way is part of nature. Is it ethical to kill these goats is a valid question.(Yes in my book). Will it increase diversity in a way Humans find value? That is a good question too. But “is it Darwinian” which I read as something like “Is it natural” is a meaningless question. Yes of course. No its not.
    What is the difference in those answers and why would it matter?

  4. In New Zealand conservation is all about killing. The native flora and terrestrial fauna evolved without mammals (actually we had 3 species of bats, of which only 2 still survive and are threatened). Introduced mammals such as mustelids (ferrets, stoats etc) and rats have wrecked havoc on our native species as they have no defenses against these predators. Possums and deer cause immense damage to the native forests. Possums and even hedgehogs have been seen to eat birds eggs. Without the use of poisons (which of course is controversial) trapping and shooting what is left of our precious wildlife may disappear completely. I

  5. Somewhat differently than Markk – humans often like to think of nature separately from human intervention. The goats were a human intervention, and so their eradication just removed an intervention in natural evolution. Whether you view humans as part of nature or not, the eradication isn’t anti-Darwinian.

  6. Did they eat the goat meat, did they use the skins for leather, bones for fertilizer etc?

    Taking the goats to Australia or somewhere would have been very expensive (80,000 goats !), (food water, the boats) + these are wild goats not used to being herded or confined, and would the australians want a potentially parasite & disease ridden herd of wild goats to destroy their sheep and goat population and industry?

  7. I was involved in this project at the outset. We had a choice, do nothing, and lose dozens, if not hundreds of species unique on the planet, or get rid of the goats. Today, Isabela island would be like a giant parched golf course had nothing been done. Insteady, we continue to have rich, diverse and healthy ecosystems, with forests, insects, birds and of course, plenty of giant tortoises.

  8. I have to disagree with all of the above. Virginia, the reason you felt queasy after gaining knowledge of these mass-killings (like I myself did), is because that is the one main difference that separates us from the rest of the animal population – having the ability to feel compassion.

    I understand that over-population of one species can have devastating affects to others, but if killing really is the answer, then maybe we should turn the guns on ourselves?

    Over-population of any species has been largely due to human interaction, and, as a result, so has the extinction and endangering of thousands of species of animals. A species over-populating and damaging an environment that was not meant for them simply happened because we put them there. Why should the animals, then, be the ones made to lose a life?

    The world stopped when 3,000 people died at the hands of hijackers, but some 50,000 goats are murdered, and we call them “pests” and look the other way.

    Feeling compassion should not be reserved for humans only. If we are to conserve this planet we need to look at things from different perspectives and realise that it doesn’t take much to care.

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