Jul 17, 2014

To The Brink

When our producer Tim Howard landed in the Galapagos, fresh from his honeymoon, he had the ghost of Darwin and dreams of Eden in his head. But he found something very different from what Darwin would¹ve seen. With a local election just days away, Tim discovered a strange new tension between the people who live there and the people who want to preserve the archipelago's incredible ecology.  We meet the tortoises, those massive, lumbering creatures that mystified Darwin, and then we meet one of the most worst threats the tortoises have ever seen: the goats. 

Nobody wants to see the tortoises disappear, as conservationists Linda Cayot, Karl Campbell, and Josh Donlan explain, but actually protecting the tortoises' home can be grisly, brutal work.

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Announcers: You're listening to Radiolab from WNYC and NPR.

Jad Abumrad: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich: I am Robert Krulwich.

Jad: This is Radiolab. Today we begin on a plane-

Robert: Thank you, Brooke.

Jad: -which carried our newly married producer Tim Howard to the Galápagos.

Tim: I took the plane from Kito. We had just finished the honeymoon that morning, me and Brooke. They make announcements and tt a certain point the flight attendants, they open up all of the overhead bins and they walk up and down spraying some sort of insecticide.

Jad: For what?

Robert: Invasive species I think.

Tim: Yes. Whatever bugs might have snuck onto the plane. By this point, I'm getting super excited and I'm thinking about Darwin. I start reading The Voyage of the Beagle, his book on this Nook that I had bought for the trip. Then, my power supply didn't work and my Nook died.

Jad: That was a big problem for Darwin too. Running out of power.

Robert: His Nook, oh God.

Tim: Then the islands come into sight.

Robert: What is the color of the Pacific Ocean when you look out the plane window?

Tim: That was actually the first thing I noticed. It's this totally wild, I've never seen-- this storybook blue-green iridescent aquamarine. I'm thinking, "Wow. This is going to be like dropping into another world. Nature in its purest form."

Robert: My version was, as my dream, what I would like is, you land and it's like a low grassy knoll and an enormous turtle comes by. The one that you could sit on the top of and it wouldn't notice that you were there.

Jad: Just meets you at the airport?

Robert: Just wandering by and then-

Tim: Exactly. That's very similar to what I was picturing but. We land. We take the 40-minute bus drive to Puerto Ayora.

Robert: Puerto Ayora?

Jad: Puerto Ayora.

Tim: Ayora. Puerto Ayora, which turned out to be a big town. Tones of people live there.

Robert: Tones like fishing village tones?

Tim: No, it's way bigger than a fishing village. Just let me say that my first hours in Galápagos were totally different than I was expecting. The first thing that really just like, "Where the hell am I?" I'm walking through the town. It's late. Sun is just starting to set. I'm actually walking down Charles Darwin Avenue, just getting the lay of the land when all of a sudden-

[cars honking]

Tim: -this line of cars comes around the corner honking. Endless honking and they're waving blue flags. At first, I didn't know what the hell was happening but turns out it was an election night. I was just really blown away that this continued, this procession for like 15 minutes. I remember asking one guy, they're driving sort of slow I can just walk up to them. I saw a car and I'm like, "Who's your candidate?" They're like-

Speaker 1: Uccelli.

Speaker 2: Uccelli.

Speaker 3: Uccelli.

Speaker 4: Leopoldo Uccelli.

Tim: I didn't know who the guy was but turns out he was the incumbent. I'm like, "Is he going to win?" And this guy, he doesn't even say anything, he just points. He points at the cars in front and behind as if like, "Dude, seriously? You see how many of us there are?" But then at a certain point, I notice this one guy by himself standing on the sidewalk wearing a white shirt and jeans. He's waving a flag but his flag is a different color. It's white and it's really loud but I go up to him and I yell at him, "Who's your candidate?" He said, "I am a candidate." I'm like, "What? Seriously?" His name is Leonidas.

Leonidas: [speaking Spanish]

Tim: He is a naturalist guide. You actually end up meeting a lot of people employed that way in Galápagos. He tells me-

Leonidas: [speaking Spanish]

Tim: Politically speaking, he's an outsider. Of course, I'm wondering why he's standing there by himself waving a flag at this entire parade of people who don't support him at all. He tells me-

Leonidas: [speaking Spanish]

Tim: Well, I'm nervous. If the party in power now, the front runners, if they get elected then I see a dark and uncertain future. More big hotels, more of these enormous boats, more people, and if things keep going this way, who's going to stand up for nature?

Jad: This is Radiolab and we are dedicating the entire hour to this little set of islands and to that question.

Robert: As the world is filling up with more and more and more people, is it inevitable that even the most sacred pristine places on the planet will eventually get swallowed up?

Jad: How far are we willing to go to return a place to what it was before we got there?

Robert: More importantly, can we?

Linda Cayot: Oh, I'm never a doubter.

Jad: This is Linda.

Linda: Linda Cayot, currently the science advisor for Galápagos Conservancy. I began my work in Galápagos in 1981.

Tim: She first came to study tortoises.

Linda: Back then, Galápagos was really isolated.

Tim: Barely any cars, super limited electricity.

Linda: All I remember is having a smile on my face all the time, because as a biologist going to Galápagos is like going to Mecca.

Tim: She says you have islands with massive volcanoes and forests.

Linda: Tree ferns that grow well above a human's height.

Tim: Wow.

Mathias Espinosa: Yes, powerful colors. There's green mangroves, black lava flows, and pink flamingos.

Tim: This is Mathias Espinosa.

Mathias: A naturalist guide in the Galápagos.

Tim: Like Linda, he says that when he first got to the Galápagos in the '80s, he couldn't believe that the place is real.

Mathias: It was breathtaking.

Tim He visited an island called-

Mathias: -Fernandina and the first thing that I saw was a lava flow, it was moving. "What's going on?" No, that's not lava flow, these are like 1,000 sea iguanas taking a sunbath.

Tim: He says he would go on these dives.

Mathias: Can you imagine schools of hammerhead sharks like 500, 800 passing in front of you, like tuna, like sardines. It shows you the power. It shows you also evolution. There is where evolution is very strong.

Tim: Okay so quick context. Galápagos Islands, a cluster of islands way of the Coast of Ecuador in the Pacific. 19 bigger islands, a bunch of smaller ones. This is a place, of course, where Darwin landed in 1835. As he went island to island, he started noticing that there were all of these creatures that were really similar to each other but also a little bit different. The tortoises had different shells depending on the kind of island they lived on. The finches looked similar but their beaks were always a little bit different.

This gets him thinking, "What if it isn't the way that everybody always says? What if God didn't create every single species in the beginning and leave them unchanged. What if in fact life is purely change? What if everything has been changing all the time?" Darwin's five weeks on Galápagos pushed him to develop his Theory of Evolution and that's also why when we think of evolution, we think of the Galápagos and, in particular, we think of two iconic creatures, the tortoise and the finch.

Let me start by telling you about the tortoise. It's hot, it's bright, it is such a perfect day for tortoise hunting. We're not hunting but looking for. Forth day I was there I went to the island of Floreana, which Darwin visited, and there up in the highlands, basically in the middle of this yard, oh my God, there are these three massive tortoises just clustered together under a tree. Wow, that is freaking amazing.

Jad: Describe them what do they look like?

Tim: They are such alien-looking creatures. They're like the size of-- geez, I don't even know what, they're massive. They look like they would crush you to death. I wonder how many years these guys have been here for. They can live for over 150 years.

Robert: Wow.

Tim: This is a tortoise trying to get over a branch.

Jad: What was that?

Tim: That is the sound of a tortoise breathing.

Jad: That's cool.

Tim: Linda, when she first went to Galápagos to study these tortoises about 30 years ago-

Linda: I did a trip where we backpacked around the Caldera and--

Tim: -she took a trip to this island called Isabela. Hiked up the side of a volcano.

Linda: -and looked at all the tortoise country. It was an impenetrable forest.

Tim: Basically tortoise heaven.

Linda: What makes it so perfect for tortoises is, in the dry season in Galápagos, the Garúa, which is a very, very thick mist, comes on to the island.

Jad: It rolls over this forest-

Linda: -and it catches in the branches of the trees.

Tim: The water then drips down from the top of the trees down to the ground-

Linda: -creating what we call drip pools, which provides tortoises with water during the dry season and they like to rest in water.

Tim: And so there, under the trees, you have these ponds with dozens of tortoise domes, just rising out of the water.

Linda: That was my first experience. It was a magical, magical area and then I actually didn't get back there for maybe 15 years from when I was there the first time. When I returned, that forest was 100% gone. The drip pools were just dried dust bowls.

Tim: Wow.

Linda: There was no shade-

Karl Cambell: -tortoises were sitting out in the sun or crowded around a couple of stalks that were still there.

Tim: This is Karl Campbell.

Karl: I work for Island Conservation and I'm based here in the Galápagos Islands.

Tim: Karl's actually the guy who showed me those tortoises.

Karl: It was a barren landscape.

Linda: Yes, barren, barren grounds.

Tim: What happened to the forest?

Linda: Goats.

Karl: Goats.

Jad: That was definitely not what I thought you were going to say. I thought you were gonna say, people.

Tim: It was kind of a collaboration. Here's the story.

Karl: Goats were originally brought to the Galápagos, probably by pirates and whalers.

Tim: Back in the 1500s, you had tons of sailors making these long voyages across the Pacific-

Karl: -and Galápagos was the major port on the whaling route where you'd come and get fresh water, but you'd also come in and pick up land tortoises, and boats will take away several hundred of them often and turn them upside down and they can last for up to a year and a half in the hold of the ship.

Tim: Like lying there, upside down.

Karl: Yes, lying there upside down.

Tim: In order to make space for the tortoises, the whalers and pirates would often take goats that they'd brought with them and throw them onto the islands. That way, when they're on their way back and sick of eating tortoises, they could grab those goats. Whalers and buccaneers, they introduced goats to Galápagos, but on islands like Isabela, which is this massive island size of Rhode Island, the goats were actually penned in, to just a little part of it, because there was this black lava rock that ran across the islands-

Linda: -extremely rough lava that's extremely difficult to walk across-

Tim: -12 miles of it-

Linda: -that had acted as a barrier-

Tim: -basically with goats on one side toward us on the other. But according to Linda-

Linda: -sometime in the late 1970s-

Tim: -the goats got brave.

Linda: We were probably talking just a few goats, but by the 1990s, those few goats, the population had exploded to about 100,000 goats.

Tim: Wow.

Linda: If you think of 100,000 goats eating everything in their path-

Tim: -every sort of plant, even the bark off of trees.

Linda: They destroy the forest.

Tim: Now they had a dilemma. On the one hand, tortoises needed help. On the other hand, you had all of these goats that didn't choose to be on the island, it wasn't there fault-

Linda: -and the goats that were out there were gorgeous. They had curled horns, different colored fur, just beautiful animals.

Tim: They've been there for 500 years.

Karl: Some people were concerned with "Goats have their own set of if you will right to be there." Those arguments came up frequently.

Tim: To which Karl would respond.

Karl: Are we going to let tortoises go extinct? There's thousands of islands around the world that have goats on them.

Tim: These tortoises are only found here.

Karl: So, where do your values lie?

Linda: In 1994, we had what we called the tortoise summit in England and that was where we started the discussions about what are we going to do.

Tim: Experts came from all over the world. Linda says, "We want to get rid of the goats."

Linda: Many of them thought we were nuts and that it was impossible.

Tim: There's a hundred thousand of them.

Linda: So many doubters.

Tim: Karl says he even heard the idea-

Karl: Why don't you put lions? They eat goats in Africa, why don't you get lions on there? Those are really interesting ideas, but at some point, they're going to get hungry and they're going to start eating all the other things that you treasure, like the occasional tourist.

Tim: In any case after endless planning and meetings-

Linda: It took eight years, I think.

Tim: They commence Project Isabela.

Fraser Sutherland: The helicopters we used, they're called MD 500s, small helicopter there for four passengers with one pilot, single turbine, five blades.

Tim: This is Fraser.

Fraser: Fraser Sutherland. I was the engineer, pilot, and the sharp shooter 2004 through to 2006.

Tim: Almost every day during that time, Fraser would fly over Isabela Island. Two guys with-

Fraser: -two shooters, either the side of the helicopter. What you do is, so you come across and you're flying along and you might see one goat-

Tim: He says you followed that goat as it ran away until joined its friends.

Fraser: Because you have to find all those other goats

Tim: -circle real low-

Fraser: -you'd fly around them-

Tim: -round them up-

Fraser: -try and get them in a single group-

Tim: -and then you start picking off the goats one by one by one and there are actually videos online where you see these packs of goats running for their lives and then dropping to the ground.

Linda: The last goat or two might run into area where it's impossible where it's to reach-

Fraser: -or actually go into caves. What we'd do is, we'd find a location as close as we could or right on top of the cave, drop out one of the two shooters that was in the helicopter and it physically go into the cave, shoot the goats out, or shoot them on site.

Linda: And then you go on.

Tim: Actually in under a year through this aerial attack, they ended up wiping out 90% of the goats on Isabela.

Josh Donlan: But to give an example of the nature of this business-

Tim: That is Josh Donlan, he runs an NGO that was involved in Project Isabela.

Josh: -it's relatively easy to remove 90% of a goat population from an island, but as they become rare and rare, they're harder and harder to detect.

Tim: Goats become "educated." They learned that this sound [helicopter sound] means, so the goats start hiding.

Fraser: They go into bushes they won't move.

Tim: They learn to stand under a tree, holding their breath.

Josh: And so you ended up flying around in an expensive helicopter, not finding any goats. Now the way we deal with that, it's an interesting one. We use this technique called Judas goats.

Karl: Yes, Judas goats.

Tim: Initially it was Karl's suggestion.

Karl: Those goats are gregarious and like being in groups.

Tim: They're herd animals, right?

Josh: And so the technique that we would use was, you would fire up your helicopter. You fly around, you'd find some goats, you'd-

Tim: -capture goats-

Josh: -capture them, live-

Karl: -and then come back-

Tim: -back to base camp.

Karl: Offload them-

Josh: -and we put a radio collar on them and you throw them back on the island.

Tim: Then you wait. Instinctively-

Fraser: -that lone goat will go and find out the goats.

Josh: A week, two weeks, go by. We fire up the helicopter.

Tim: They get back over the island with this little device.

Karl: It's a directional antenna.

Tim: They start tracking the Judas goat, till they spot it with some other goats.

Fraser: And then everyone gets shot, except the Judas goat.

Tim: They let it go. It finds more friends.

Fraser: And then everyone gets shot, except the Judas goat.

Tim: And then they do it again.

Fraser: Everyone gets shot except the Judas goat and you do that every two weeks for a year.

Jad: Oh my God

Tim: That is how they go from 90% goat-free to 91 to 92 to 93 to 94.

Robert: It's like having a program on you over and over and over again.

Jad: I know it's like Jesus.

Tim: It gets worse.

Josh: Now Judas goat is a good Judas goat until it gets pregnant-

Tim: -because then it doesn't want to be social anymore. It goes off and has its kid and is very solitary, which is the last thing you want when you're trying to get goats off islands. Karl kept mulling this problem.

Karl: What would it take to basically make the perfect Judas goat? The ideal Judas goat, if you will, is a goat that would search for and be searched for-

Tim: -and that would never get pregnant.

Josh: Karl Campbell figured out a technique where we could sterilize them in the field.

Tim: They grabbed the goats, dart them, and then in a matter of minutes-

Josh: -snip, snip.

Tim: Did you do this?

Josh: Yes. Well, I stood next to Karl and watched him do it.


Josh: Karl took it one step further and he actually gave these females hormone implants-

Tim: -that basically put them into heat-

Karl: -for an extended duration.

Tim: Normally a female goat would be in heat for maybe a couple of days. These females would go-

Karl: -for more than 190 days-

Tim: -and wherever they went, they would lore those male goats out of their caves, so that-- [gunshots] All in all over the course of this two-year program-

Josh: -we had hundreds of Judas goats out-

Tim: -and using those goats, they were able to go from 94% goat-free to 96 to 97 to 98-

Karl: -and basically when you have only Judas goats meeting up with other Judas goats-

Linda: -then you can say the goats have been eliminated.

Josh: That you're done.

Tim: The point they got to, at least on Isabela, in mid-2006.

Linda: This kind of eradication program was far beyond anything that anyone had ever done anywhere in the world. [music]

Tim: Because turns out, they weren't just doing this on Isabela island.

Linda: No, we're talking about island by island.

Tim: Over the course of about seven years, they eliminate over 250,000 goats. You complete that with Isabela, and did it work?

Josh: Yes, the results of this were absolutely impressive.

Tim: You had plants re-emerging. You had trees growing back.

Josh: And in a really short period of time.

Tim: This allowed for those important drip pools. Tortoises, they basically got their home back. This is the real thing. Tortoises walking around. It's incredible.

Jad: So they did it, they got all the goats.

Tim: Not all the goats.

Robert: What do you mean?

Tim: Those Judas goats, they kept them around.

Robert: Why?

Jad: I would have shot them first just out of sympathy for them.

Robert: Yes, exactly.

Tim: They needed the goats because there was the problem of people.

[people shouting]

Tim: Because during the '90s, these demonstrations started to happen.

Mathias: Demonstrations of outrage and violent activity. Constant conflict.

Tim: To explain.

Augustine Lopez: [Spanish language]

Tim: This is Augustine Lopez, a long-time fisherman. He told me that in the '70s and '80s-

Augustine Lopez: [Spanish language]

Tim: -lobster was fished all year round, no restrictions, and then fishermen started making a killing fishing sea cucumber. Because there was this huge demand. Then the national park comes in, the same group that's doing the goat eradication. They tell the fishermen they're over-fishing the sea cucumber, they've got to limit their catch. The fishermen are like, "Who are you to tell me that I can't feed my family?" They lash out. They march down Charles Darwin Avenue.

Paul Watson: They would come down the street, throwing rocks and sticks and everything.

Tim: That's Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. He was there counter-protesting. He says that at one point they went after national park buildings.

Paul: They were attacking the ranger stations with Molotov cocktails.

Tim: They blockaded roads.

Paul: They literally drove the rangers out of the national park headquarters and took it over.

Tim: On Isabela, they burned down a building.

Paul: They kidnapped some people, including some of my crew.

Tim: They even killed dozens of tortoises, slitting their throats. According to some accounts, they even hung them from trees. Not only that but according to Linda, those goats--

Linda: A couple of islands where they've been eliminated, fishermen have put them back.

Tim: Really?

Linda: Yes.

Tim: What they decided to do is leave the Judas goats on various islands where they can live out their sterilized days chomping on grass, sharing war stories until such time, as it might be needed again.

Robert: Is the war between the greens and the fishermen and such, is that still hot and difficult, and are they still killing tortoises?

Tim: The fishermen, they seem to have stopped taking over the national park and killing tortoises.

Robert: You know why?

Tim: It's a combination of reasons. On the one hand, fishermen have started to participate in the actual fisheries management more. Because it seems like they realize if they're going to keep their livelihood, they can't just fish everything out. Then at the same time, the tourism economy has been taking off. All of these fishermen, they find that it's easier for them to actually survive by using their boats to take tourists around island to island, so they're all converting over into the tourism economy.

Jad: We're going to take a short break. This is Radiolab. We'll be back with producer Tim Howard at this hour on Galápagos in just a moment.


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