Rats In Paradise | Translation

Rats In Paradise | Translation


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Translated by MC Editorial

[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón. 

In October of last year, 2023, our senior producer Lisette Arévalo took a flight from Quito, Ecuador. 

[Captain]: Good afternoon, passengers. The captain greets you. My name is José Lizarzaburu. Welcome aboard. Our flight time is one hour, forty minutes, good conditions. Have an excellent flight… 

[Daniel]: A normal flight in every sense, until almost the end, when they were about to land and an announcement was made:

[Recording]: In order to reduce the risk of introducing insects or other transmitters that can cause damage to human health and to the biodiversity of the islands, we will apply a spray recommended by the World Health Organization. Please…

[Daniel]: And at that moment, something happened that you don’t see on many flights. The cabin crew opened the overhead compartments, one by one, and they sprayed aerosol. It looked like the typical air freshener used for bathrooms. Nothing very sophisticated, but necessary.

Lisette was flying to the Galápagos. Or, as they are known in Ecuador, the enchanted islands. And this aerial fumigation was only part of what she would get. At the airport in Baltra, a dry, uninhabited islet connected to Santa Cruz, one of the most populated islands in the Galápagos, all her belongings were searched. Every corner of her suitcases was examined, as well as her purse and her recording equipment. She was asked whether she was transporting seeds, plants, fruits, or food.

All this is not for show. There is a reason behind it—a very specific reason. Over the years, nearly 1,600 species have been introduced to the Galápagos. Plants, animals and insects have affected the islands in considerable ways, and, in several cases, have driven entire species to extinction.

And Lisette made this trip to tell you about one of those invasive animals. One that you probably know—black rats.

After the break: the enchanted islands and the war against rats.

We’ll be back.

[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. Our senior producer Lisette Arévalo picks up the story.

[Lisette Arévalo]: I don’t think there’s any need to describe what black rats are like. We’ve all seen them, and these are no different. They live everywhere. They’ll eat anything. They are agile. They have good hearing. They detect danger and evade predators easily. Not to mention the speed with which they reproduce. They are unstoppable.

Their presence throughout the Galápagos Archipelago has been devastating. They feed on the eggs of tortoises, birds, and land and marine iguanas. They eat chicks, small reptiles, and small invertebrates. They also swallow all the seeds, fruits, stems and leaves that are essential for the survival of many birds on the islands. They have been the cause of many native species moving to other places or simply becoming extinct.

On Floreana Island, the sixth largest in the archipelago, their presence is felt every day in the lives of its more or less 150 residents. It has been very hard. So that island was my final destination.

Getting to Floreana is not easy. Boats leave from Santa Cruz only when there are enough people to justify the trip. I had reserved a spot on one that left on October 24, 2023 at 7 in the morning. The day was cloudy. Perfect for the two-hour trip.

[Man]: Good morning to all, and welcome. Tickets, please. One dollar per person, water taxi. 

[Lisette]: It was a pretty bumpy trip. In October, the sea is very rough and you can feel everything on the speedboat. After a lot of jumping and dizziness, we arrived. 

[Guide]: Hello, how are you all? Welcome to Floreana. Remember you have to be back here at 2:30 in the afternoon to return to Santa Cruz…  Watch your heads. 

[Lisette]: Thank you. 

The first thing I saw when I got off were two Galápagos sea lions. These are animals typical of the islands, that look like seals. One was sunbathing and the other was swimming in the water. They looked happy.

I went up a ramp to a cement dock where there was a sign, faded by the sun, that welcomed me to the island. There were large black rocks on the edge of the pier, and when I looked closely, I saw some marine iguanas sitting in the sun, camouflaged.

At first, Floreana feels exactly like what it is—an island, isolated from the mainland, from the sound of car horns, the loud music, and the overwhelming souvenir shops of Santa Cruz. I felt that I was coming to exactly what you imagine when you think of the Galápagos: a place where nature prevails, with its wide variety of animals. I crossed the pier and entered the town. 

There is a long street, the main street. It is a dirt road that reaches the mountain on the upper part of the island, where the farmers who live there have their farms. Along that street are cement and brick houses surrounded by trees.

I went to one of the few restaurants there, where we were going to meet.

[Verónica Mora]: My name is Verónica Mora Flores. I am president of the parish government for 2023-2027.

[Lisette]: The parish government is a local government.

Verónica has lived in Floreana since 2009. She moved there from the Ecuadorian mainland when she married a man from Galápagos. Since then, she and her husband have been working in agriculture on a farm. It is located on the upper part of the island, where the climate is more humid and lends itself to growing various foods.

[Verónica]: Well, for us the main things are chickens and pigs. We have always had cassava, corn, plantains. We have had legumes.

[Lisette]: They plant for their own consumption and also to sell to their neighbors or send to Santa Cruz Island. But since they started, they have had to deal with the rats that were everywhere.

[Verónica]: And they are horrible, horrible animals. You can’t stand them. The problem is that things are in the open air, so rats ate up a lot, such as cucumbers and tomatoes. They went to the pigpens and ate the plantains. They even climb up the plantain trees and eat the ripe fruit. They even get to the chicken coops, where they go and eat the eggs.

[Lisette]: Cabbages, corn, cassava. No animal or crop is safe. While I was there, I was given some information: Farmers can lose between 50 and 80% of their products because of these rats. People like Verónica and her husband had to spend more money buying poison than they earned from their harvest. 

[Verónica]: Let’s say there are 50 pellets, one of those small squares. Well, you place that every 50 meters, but you couldn’t cover even one hectare of the production. So, at night they finished them all, and those who had to die died, and we’d do it all over again, and so on. 

[Lisette]: Once again, you would go get the rodent poison, put it out, and kill the rats that ate it. And so on, countless times. There were simply too many rats. 

[Eliécer Cruz]: This last year, the rat population in Floreana was shocking.

[Lisette]: This is Eliécer Cruz, a biologist born on the island. He is the director of the Galápagos Program of the Jocotoco Conservation Foundation, an NGO that works to protect biodiversity.

He knows a lot about rats. Especially about the ones that live in Floreana and the way they affect everyone who lives there. 

[Eliécer]: The farmers reported to us that they got up every morning and headed for their avocado or papaya trees to harvest their fruits, and they were all half eaten by rats. They had to rescue a part or destroy it. Last year, a farmer planted about three hectares of corn. He had planned to harvest 300 quintals of corn, but no matter how hard he fought against the rats, using poison, he managed to harvest only seven quintals. They ate everything.

[Lisette]: He told me that the issue of rats has always been a problem for the people of the island. His family included. 

[Eliécer]: We had to buy rodent poison constantly to prevent them from entering the house. And also when we had crops, prevent them from damaging all the crops, There were rats all the time.

[Lisette]: During the day, they were not easily spotted. At least the large ones, because they were elusive and passed through the town very quickly. Maybe they found a mouse here and there. But at night, they were daring. Eliécer told me that a co-worker woke up one night with a rat on her head. And another would hear them moving around the kitchen, toppling pots or dragging dishes.

The rats walked everywhere, as if they owned the island. And they have been there for hundreds of years.

According to various records, black rats arrived even before the first inhabitants, in the mid-17th century. They traveled hidden in cargo or supply boxes on the ships of English and French pirates. Back then, after plundering Spanish ships, the pirates took refuge in Floreana. 

While they disembarked and settled in caves, the rats did the same. Only, unlike the pirates who came and went, they stayed, taking advantage of the island’s vegetation and water. They dug their burrows and began to settle in the habitats of finches, vermilion flycatchers, iguanas, and lizards.

The rats did not share the land with humans until almost 200 years later, in 1800. First with an Irish sailor who lived alone on that island for years after being abandoned by his crew. Then, at two different times, when some inmates from different prisons in Ecuador were sent to do forced agricultural labor.

Finally, in 1929, two German couples settled, built their houses, began to make a living from agriculture and raised their families. During all those years, animals were coming with these people. And this had consequences. 

[Eliécer]: When people came to settle in Floreana, they brought along a lot of invasive species. Voluntarily or involuntarily. We assume the rodents were unintentional. But they also brought pigs, goats, horses, donkeys, dogs, cats. And these ran wild and became pests and decimated the native and endemic populations of the island.

[Lisette]: A point of clarification: “native” refers to those that naturally inhabit the ecosystem, and “endemic” means those that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

In Floreana there are at least 13 extinct species and several in danger of disappearing. The vermilion flycatcher, for example, a small bird with red and black feathers, became extinct about 20 years ago. For one thing, their chicks were killed by the bloodsucking larvae of the avian vampire fly. Also an introduced species. There was also the uncontrolled invasion of the blackberry plant, which limited birds’ access to their food sources, such as caterpillars, spiders and crickets, during their mating seasons.

Several others that also disappeared: the barn owl, the Galápagos hawk and the lava gull. They are animals that, just by hearing their names, you know are unique.  

[Eliécer]: So there certainly have been increasing problems in Floreana from the point of view of biodiversity. And that is also an urgent call to act, right? 

[Lisette]: It is not like no action has been taken to prevent these extinctions. In 1959, the Ecuadorian State declared the archipelago to be a protected area of the country. This is how the Galápagos National Park was created, focused on preserving the more than 7 thousand endemic and native species, the land area where there are no settlers, and the marine reserve.

That’s why, when I was in Santa Cruz, I went to the National Park offices to talk to this man:

[Christian Sevilla]: Christian Sevilla, in charge of the process of conservation and restoration of island ecosystems of the Galápagos National Park.

[Lisette]: I wanted to know what actions had been taken up to that point for the conservation of the islands. He told me that the Park has focused on combating about 350 invasive species that have already had, or will have, an impact on the ecosystem. And to do this, they have followed something they call an ecological sequence.

[Christian]: What ecological sequences do is work from the most important to the least important. In the case of invasive species, we work from the species that has the greatest impact on ecosystems and we continue working on the top ten as well. 

[Lisette]: They started with the goats, because they were the ones causing the most damage to ecosystems. And their history is shocking. 

The goats arrived with the settlers in different islands of the archipelago: Isabela, Santa Cruz, Floreana, San Cristóbal, which were soon colonized by them as well. They reproduced uncontrollably and wandered everywhere. They ate all types of vegetation until they exhausted it. They caused unprecedented levels of erosion and put many native plants in danger of extinction. In addition, they altered the habitat of several types of birds, and ate the food of giant tortoises and land iguanas. They destroyed everything in their path. That’s why they had to be eliminated. This is how the process to eradicate them began in 2004.

A group of Park technicians and experts from New Zealand hunted them with the help of sniffer dogs and shot at them from helicopters. In three years, they eliminated 240 thousand goats. Around that time, they also killed pigs, donkeys, and other non-native species.

The next species in that top 10 mentioned by Christian were cats, which have reduced the bird population by up to 40% in different regions of the world. But at that time, the Park could not find an efficient method to eradicate them. So they jumped to the next animal: rats.

Since the 1980s, several attempts had been made to eradicate rats by putting rodent poison in certain spots on the islands. But it was not enough. 

[Christian]: What we did in 2007 was to bring together several international experts and several institutions and worked with them here to create a strategic plan for the total eradication of rodents throughout the archipelago. 

[Lisette]: We are talking about 7,880 square kilometers. I mean, imagine trying to eradicate rats from almost four cities the size of Bogotá. Pretty ambitious. Also, let’s stop for a moment to think about what they were proposing to do. It is one thing to eliminate goats, large animals that are more visible. But rodents, rats, know where to hide and go unnoticed. They are difficult to eradicate. But the people working in the Galápagos National Park were convinced that it would be possible.

That year, 2007, they consulted with Island Conservation, an NGO that has focused since 1994 on removing invasive species to prevent the extinction of native species on islands around the world. Island Conservation had already had successful experiences eradicating invasive mammals from islands in the United States.

The main weapon was a certain type of poison.

[Christian]: Brodifacoum is a second-generation poison. What does that mean? It affects your nervous system, and what it does is that it’s an anticoagulant. So, in the end it doesn’t kill you immediately after you consume it, but rather it makes you sick, it makes you sick little by little until the rodent, in this case, has a heart attack.

[Lisette]: Because of this somewhat technical distinction, the workers of the Galápagos National Park do not call it “poison” but rather “bait.” In addition, brodifacoum is contained in a special mixture that attracts rodents. I mention it because it is the term that many of the people interviewed will use in this story. In any case, it is a rodenticide that is used all over the world.

And so, a year later, the first attempts were made to eradicate rats in North Seymour, a flat islet with no human inhabitants, but where sea lions, land iguanas and blue-footed boobies live. First, as a preventive measure, they captured 40 land iguanas—20 females and 20 males—to keep them in captivity while the bait was applied, since there was a risk that they would eat it. Then they continued with the dispersion.

About 50 park rangers dropped the bait by hand throughout the island. The application took three months, and the eradication was successful, although 8 iguanas died in the process, a not-so-significant number compared to the total population. To the Park, they were simply collateral damage in the middle of a war against rats.

[Christian]: What we do have to be clear about on this topic is that every action has a reaction, and more so if human beings carry out that action. So what we try to do in every program or every eradication or restoration project is that, when actions may possibly be negative, we try to have mitigation plans for each of the species that could be affected in some way—or in some cases, in fact, many of them become positive.

[Lisette]: The mitigation plan refers, for example, to what they did when they put the 40 iguanas in captivity. And also what had to be done with the hawks when the project was implemented on two other islands. These had to be placed in captivity for 6 weeks, and before releasing them, all traces of bait on the island had to be removed.

Christian says all that work was worth it, because once the rats were gone from these islands, you began to see impressive results. On Pinzón Island, for example, there had been no young tortoises for many years because the rats ate them. But since the eradication project, baby tortoises can be seen walking around in their ecosystem. 

[Christian]: And species of birds that had not been seen in Pinzón began to appear. And in Rábida, a significant example is that a species of endemic gecko appeared, a new species for the Galápagos that had never been found before.

[Lisette]: The gecko, a reptile very similar to a small lizard. It is believed that there were few of this species left and that, once the rats disappeared, they were able to reproduce. It looked as if the rats had been beaten and the ecosystems were recovering. But, as is often the case, nature always finds a way.

In 2017, ten years after the rats were eliminated on North Seymour Island, they returned. The main theory: They swam back. It is believed that they were helped by a tourist boat. And if they didn’t swim from that boat, they swam from Baltra Island, which is very close to North Seymour, a little over a mile away. It is a very easy distance to cross for rats who, by nature, are excellent swimmers. Some studies say that a rat can swim 72 hours without stopping and that they even know how to dive.

So in 2018 the Galápagos National Park and the Island Conservation Foundation tried once again to eradicate the rats from North Seymour. But this time, in addition to manual dispersion, two drones were used. With this new technique, the poison could be spread much faster—as much as 30 kilos on a trip lasting up to 15 minutes. Difficult areas could be covered, and records were kept of the geographical coordinates where the drone had already passed, allowing for a more precise application.

Close to 300 feedlots were also set up manually on the island and nearby lands to prevent a possible return.

[Christian]: All these projects that I have told you about have been a learning experience for us and have, of course, increased our abilities as park rangers and institutions so we are able to take it to a higher level.

[Lisette]: That higher level was eradicating rats and feral cats from an island that was not depopulated: Floreana. It was an ambitious project that began to be considered in 2012 and that had the inhabitants in mind from the very beginning.

When the Galápagos National Park and Island Conservation came that year to tell them what they wanted to do about the rats, many people on the island thought it was a good idea. Among them was Verónica Mora, whom we heard before. Although they also had doubts: 

[Verónica]: Is it going to affect the water, the food, the animals? What will happen to us, to our health? Because the poison was going to fall into the water and we are going to consume that water. Some rat is going to get thirsty and will die there, and we are going to drink that water. 

[Lisette]: All those concerns reached the ears of the authorities, who hurried to calm them down. They explained to people that brodifacoum is not soluble in water, and that in order to be poisoned they would have to consume a large amount. The water source would be protected with a mesh to prevent bait from falling in or rats that ate the poison from going to die nearby. And pig sheds, stables and chicken coops were built to protect their animals.

They built Verónica a chicken coop.  

[Verónica]: It is small, but for us it is enough. It is good; the enclosure is made of cinder block and they have like a small patio closed around with mesh and a dense poly-shade on top, and covered with the same kind of roof for them to sleep.

[Lisette]: Building all this infrastructure, talking to the residents and planning the dispersion took 12 years. During all that time it seemed that the project organizers had thought of every variable imaginable, even the most worrisome: that the rats might find a way to return. It could be in the flow of people arriving—fishermen, tourists, cargo ships or the speed boats that arrive from Santa Cruz. But in all this time, different plans have been developed to prevent that from happening. Like having dogs trained in rodent detection, and camera traps that will detect in real time whether there are animals present.

The organizers also decided to implement strict checks of people and goods entering, and created a plan that details all the places where rats could be reintroduced, such as tourist spots, the port, or some caves where fishermen rest.

Verónica told me that she fully supports the project and that it even gives her hope: 

[Verónica]: On the agricultural front, we will no longer have problems, we will no longer have the expense of buying rat poison, which is pretty expensive. So we are going to have a more profitable production. So it will be interesting later, when Floreana blooms again, as they say will happen with this project.

[Lisette]: But it was hard for me to share Verónica’s expectations. I had come to report on this super-planned project, to be conducted on a massive scale, reasonable in principle and with good intentions. But I was starting to feel uncomfortable. There was an implicit cruelty in this whole plan that I found difficult to swallow.

To what extent is it okay for humans to intervene in nature this way? What makes one species more valuable than another? How do we come to accept that we must capture and exterminate in order to conserve? What right do we have to make these decisions?

And with all those questions, it was time to see the project underway. 

[Daniel]: We’ll be back after a break. 

[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. Lisette Arévalo continues the story. 

[Lisette]: When I arrived in Floreana, the first eradication project had begun, with the first bait implemented almost 3 weeks earlier. They did it by hand in the populated area. For the rest of the island, the agricultural area and so on, they decided to use helicopters.

And that was the sound that predominated on the island.

[Archive soundbite: helicopter]

They were leading the war against rats, which they called the Floreana Project.

Two workers from the Jocotoco Foundation took me to see the operations center. 

We went up the only dirt road to that area. The sun was very strong, the heat was stifling, and there was dust everywhere. After about five minutes, we came to a detour where there were orange cones and a “No Trespassing” and “Operations Center” sign.

[Karina]: Carlos, Carlos, do you copy me?

Permission to enter the operations center.

[Lisette]: The operations center is a flat dirt field the size of a soccer stadium.

There is also parking for vehicles and machinery, and an administrative area—which is nothing more than a small tent. A few meters away is a house where the pilots sleep. From there you can see the helicopters very closely. There I met Víctor Carrión, a specialist in island restoration and coordinator of the implementation of the Floreana Project for the Jocotoco Foundation. I asked him to describe what we were seeing. 

[Víctor Carrión]: It is a helicopter that holds six people, including the pilot. But only two people go during this maneuver. It has three blades, two skis, and two storage compartments in the back, but the most important thing is that it has a hanging bait bucket that holds 700 kilograms of weight and is connected to the pilot’s dashboard, so he decides when to start applying the bait and when to stop it.

[Lisette]: The bucket Víctor was talking about is made of stainless steel and has a motor that activates the dispersion mechanism. To spread the poison, a lot of precision is needed because the flight is very low and it carries a lot of weight. For this reason, the seven foreign pilots who fly it are experts, trained in New Zealand, the country that developed the bait application strategy to eradicate rodents on islands. The bait is cylindrical, weighs approximately one gram, and is blue. 

[Víctor]: Why blue? Because it is the color that finches are least attracted to. Especially because they are the main species of land birds that could be affected. We did tests to see which color they were least attracted to. So we ruled out white, yellow, red, etc., but we found that blue was the one that attracted them the least.

[Lisette]: And that turquoise blue bait contains the perfect recipe for rats. After several studies, they found that the flavor rats like the most is banana. To that they added cereals such as wheat and barley. But certain birds, such as finches and short-eared owls, could be at risk of eating the bait, so they caught 64 short-eared owls and 537 birds corresponding to five species of finches. More than enough to repopulate the islands in case the remaining ones died.

Everything seemed to be carefully planned.

From the tent that served as an office in the operations center, I watched seven technicians handle that bait. They were dressed in white overalls and a fluorescent green vest. They wore gloves, earmuffs, masks, boots, helmets, glasses. All that to protect themselves from dust when operating machinery like backhoes and cranes.

[Archive soundbite]

The helicopter arrived and, without descending, lowered the bucket. One of the technicians filled it with bait.

And then the helicopter rose to disperse it across the island.

The poison fell from the sky, hectare after hectare. It seemed like it was hailing.

The helicopters make between 30 and 40 flights a day, and the technicians repeat everything each time. They work non-stop in daily shifts of almost ten hours.

Víctor told me that the effects of the first implementation had been evident right away.

[Víctor]: On the fifth day after starting the applications, we started to find dead rodents and also reports from the community—right?—of dead rodents near homes, and so on. 

[Lisette]: Rats that eat the bait die slowly and their bodies rot quickly. That is what they started seeing 5 days after the roll-out began. The people of the town knew that when a dead rat was found, the best thing was to call Víctor so that he or someone from the foundation would come and collect the bodies.

They also monitored the island to see how much of the bait they placed had been consumed.

[Víctor]: So that gave us a general idea that approximately 80% of the bait had disappeared by the fourth day of application. It is a good indicator because it implies that the bait was consumed by the rodents and that a large percentage of the rodent population has been eliminated. 

[Lisette]: In addition, they have also reviewed the bait stations they placed in the town. 

[Víctor]: In the agricultural area, mainly, where farmers are our best allies for monitoring. They have not detected rodents, they no longer see consumption, for example, of sugar cane, passion fruit, cassava, pineapple. They no longer see that type of crop damage. So it is a good indicator. 

[Lisette]: They have not seen them in the port or in the town, either.

That first implementation ended on October 10 and was focused on reaching the most dominant rats. The second, during which I was present, began on the 21st of the same month. It was focused on the rats that were hidden in their burrows. And the last one, which would be in almost mid-November, was to eliminate the pups. They wanted to reach all of them.

But it must also be said: Other species have died from the bait. At least, that’s what Cecilia Salgado, a farmer and resident of Floreana, told me.

[Cecilia Salgado]: I’m telling you, with that pellet, quite a few finches have died. And the finches are naughty and peck that pellet. I have seen them pecking.

[Lisette]: The pellet, the turquoise bait that supposedly did not attract them enough to eat it. Before the project started, she was used to seeing these birds all the time. 

[Cecilia]: I’m telling you, there were plenty in the patio of my house up the slope. Now there are none. Or down here, either.

[Lisette]: Down here, in the town. And the finches that Cecilia has seen have been already near death.

According to her, her animals have also been affected: ten chickens and a rooster died from consuming the bait. She says it was her fault because she didn’t keep them in the chicken coop. She is also worried about the cows and pigs that are in the barns and pig sheds.

[Cecilia]: It’s the same as if they lock you up, right? If you live free and they lock you up. Something similar happens to animals too.

[Lisette]: They get stressed. All the more so when they are animals that are used to roaming free. Likewise, Cecilia is worried that her cows have already spent too much time locked up. She told me they have stopped eating and lost weight. So of course, she is worried that by the time she wants to sell the meat from her cattle, she will not have a good product to sell, as she had up to that point in Floreana and Santa Cruz. 

[Cecilia]: That’s why I pray to God that this ends soon, so I can release my pigs. But I do have to keep the pigs inside for a while longer. Because pigs are scavengers. So the rats that are dead around here are going to be eaten and my pigs are going to die. I have to wait for them to disintegrate. 

[Lisette]: When we spoke, there was still one more dispersion of the rat bait to be done, in addition to the 3 final disseminations to eradicate feral cats, although many had already died from secondary poisoning. 

[Cecilia]: Since cats eat rats, there has been a lot of cat mortality because there are a lot of cats in the mountains. And for the last round of the poison, they say they are going to put out some sausages just for that. For cats. 

[Lisette]: A special sausage made with an Australian recipe where they hide a specific cat poison, that is also manufactured in that country. They didn’t explain what ingredients they are made with because they signed a confidentiality agreement. But it is known that the taste, the smell and the appearance attract cats.

Cecilia had no choice but to wait for the project to be completed at the end of December 2023. 

[Cecilia]: But hey, whatever. What can we do? We accept it and we have to move on. As I say, let’s hope that… that agriculture prospers. Because there will no longer be rats eating our crops. 

[Lisette]: Nor feral cats to attack their chicks or birds. What she wants most is for this to improve the island’s economy so that it becomes self-sufficient and they no longer need to bring products in from Santa Cruz, as it is very expensive. When I asked her whether she thought the island could, one day, be free of rats, she said: 

[Cecilia]: I’m still not convinced that they will be gone for good. That the majority will be controlled, yes. They will leave us alone, what do I know, about five or six years, up to ten years, I think. Because rats are intelligent, let me tell you. When they realize that their food is harmful, it seems like they communicate with each other. We will have to see. Seeing is believing, said the blind man.

[Lisette]: Back in Quito, I began to do some research on eradication in the Galápagos. I saw impressive images, like one of a feral cat with a land iguana in its mouth. Aerial photos of so many goats together that it was difficult to count how many there were. A baby goat standing on top of a tortoise shell. And some images of before and after the arrival of the goats. In the before picture, the area looked completely green. In the after picture, it was completely destroyed.

Seeing this, I could understand why they had considered it necessary to kill those thousands of goats. But I also came across a video that shocked me. It is an old report about eradication. In it you see a man with a shotgun in a helicopter that flies over the island. They find a small group of goats and, as the goats run for their lives, scared by the noise, the helicopter follows them. And one by one, the man shoots them. The goats fall to the ground. The helicopter continues as if nothing had happened.

The video is edited so that an image of giant tortoises in a completely green area appears immediately afterwards. A way of saying: we do this for them.

When I finished watching it, I immediately closed my browser tab. The hopeful music in the video made me feel uncomfortable. The tone, that I assume was supposed to move me, left a pit in my stomach. I had known for a long time that the goats were eliminated that way. But it’s one thing to know it and another to see it. To say that I found it cruel is an understatement.

I continued surfing the Internet for hours and found that there is a field of conservation that has been questioning these methods in the last decade: compassionate conservation. Its basic principles say: do no harm, recognize that all individuals matter, value wildlife, and peaceful coexistence. It is also very critical of the type of actions that conservationists have carried out for years. 

[Francisco Santiago Ávila]: In the conservation world, there is a bias against any species that is not native to the ecosystem where it is found.

[Lisette]: This is Francisco Santiago Ávila, researcher of compassionate conservation.

Francisco explained to me that compassionate conservation sees a very big problem in the concept of “native species.” Especially because it sometimes seems that the only thing that determines which ones are native and which ones are not comes down to specific dates.  

[Francisco]: This date has been globally established as the date on which any of these ecosystems were found by colonizers, and it was established that that would forever be the natural state of those ecosystems. 

[Lisette]: But native species are not determined only that way. In reality, native species are those that already existed in an ecosystem without the intervention of human beings. That is, even though rats have lived on the island for hundreds of years, technically they can never be considered “native.”

In any case, according to Francisco, this is a thinking that longs for what ecosystems were like before human beings and wants habitats to be as close to what they once were. As long as that does not involve affecting human beings, of course. 

[Francisco]: So we use our privileges of human supremacy to kill thousands, millions of animals. So what we are seeing is that all this is being driven by a perception that ecosystems have to be a certain way and what is being created in conservation is almost trying to make the world almost a zoo and keep everything in a static point in which everything is preserved and no animal moves to any other place where it does not belong.

[Lisette]: This does not mean that ecosystems and species should not be conserved. On the contrary, he is convinced that everything possible should be done to prevent extinctions. Especially when it is human beings who are causing them. However, compassionate conservation believes that, if extinctions involve eliminating other animals, humans have no business deciding which species has more value than another, which one deserves to live more. Especially when they are animals that have lived in an ecosystem for hundreds and hundreds of years, like the rats, which arrived with the pirates.

[Francisco]: Conservation must be a field that protects, that takes seriously the ethical implications of our knowing today that animals are beings with emotions, that they are aware of their lives, that many of them are social, like rats, like cats. We should not assume the prerogative of intervening in their lives for what we want from a particular ecosystem. 

[Lisette]: When I spoke with Francisco, he told me that these types of plans to poison entire islands do not take into consideration the suffering of cats and rats. There is evidence, he says, there that death from brodifacoum is painful and slow. It causes internal bleeding, difficulty breathing, vomiting, seizures. 

[Francisco]: And that’s what we’re seeing with conservation today. So they don’t take two seconds to think about these kinds of things. It is a practice that has been established for decades, so there are no worries, there is nothing more to think about. And we go ahead and we continue killing and we continue sterilizing and we continue capturing to put in perpetual captivity, etc., harming the lives of non-human beings when, from a more holistic perspective, human beings have no more or less intrinsic value than all those lives that we are destroying just to have nature the way we want it. 

[Lisette]: When I asked him what would be a better way to handle the rat and cat problem in Floreana’s case, he could not give me an effective answer. Everything he told me makes sense in theory. But there is a very long way from saying to doing. And that goes to show how complicated this whole thing is.

To date, Floreana has not found a solution that truly meets what compassionate conservationists are asking for.

I wanted to talk about this issue with someone from Island Conservation, one of the organizations that is part of the eradication project, so I contacted the native species manager, Paula Castaño.

I asked her whether she wouldn’t agree that, with these types of actions, humans are being too heavy-handed with the ecosystem. She told me that she doesn’t see it that way.

[Paula Castaño]: But then you have the opportunity to ensure that these populations are not lost. They are unique species that exist only in the Galápagos. While rodents do exist, obviously, but they do exist in other places as well, and in this case it is causing too much of an impact. And they are not species that are from that island.

[Lisette]: We talked specifically about the case of Floreana Island. She told me that the native species there never learned to live with those predators because, it is believed, there were never endemic rodents. So to think that they will eventually evolve to be able to coexist with rats seems almost impossible.

[Paula]: When you have the evolutionary aspect, and when you have populations that are being established and don’t have an impact, then you begin to see a sort of balance in the ecosystem of the population. But with invasive species there is no balance. Invasive species destroy native species and also affect the community that lives on the island. 

[Lisette]: She explained that what Island Conservation wants to achieve is not to fully restore the original ecosystem, the one that existed millions of years ago when there were no people there, but rather to give the ecosystem the possibility of recovering along with the community so that they can survive together. And to achieve this, they need to intervene. They can’t leave things as they are. 

[Paula]: It would be, from my point of view, a little selfish to think, “Okay, so we leave these populations and let more than 55 species that are currently threatened on the island disappear, as well as another 12 species that live only in a few surrounding islets,” when we can do something that could help everyone really get back on their feet.

[Lisette]: In the case of Floreana, getting back on their feet involves not only eliminating all the rats on the island, but also reintroducing 12 endemic species. One of those is Darwin’s flycatcher. There are still a few in Santa Cruz. There are also the species I mentioned at the beginning: lava gulls, barn owls. And, above all, the giant tortoises that were believed to be extinct.

[Freddy Villalba]: Look, look at the tortoises. They are going to enter the breeding program in the future, I think… 

[Lisette]: The giant tortoises of the Galápagos. I saw them at the tortoise breeding center of the National Park and there I met this man, Freddy Villalba, a park ranger who has worked there for 20 years. That day, he showed me a very special tortoise:

[Freddy]: Look how different the shells are. 

[Lisette]: Those.. 

[Freddy]: Yes, these are saddleback type. These are not round as is usual. So this one has a much, much longer neck. The front limbs will also be long. They will easily be able to eat the tall plants. Yes. They are quite, quite tall when they stand. 

[Lisette]: And this one… Is it from Floreana?

[Freddy]: These are the ones that came from the Wolf Volcano and will enter the Floreana breeding program…

[Lisette]: The Wolf Volcano is the highest peak on the archipelago, on Isabela Island. And in 2011 something incredible happened: Tortoises were found that had a high genetic load of the tortoise that had become extinct in Floreana, hundreds of years ago. They were taken from the island by buccaneers and pirates who took them on their ships to eat them on their long journeys. But when they reached the Wolf Volcano—which is at the northernmost tip of the archipelago—they ended up leaving some tortoises behind because their boats were overloaded.

They not only left tortoises from Floreana, but from all the islands. And although they had different characteristics—such as the shape of their shell or the length of their neck—they interbred. New species with different genetic loads were created from tortoises that were believed to be extinct.

For the scientists who made the discovery, this was an opportunity to repopulate Floreana. Between 2015 and 2017, they captured males and females that were 70 to 80% similar to the originals so that they could reproduce in captivity. In theory, this means that after some years there may be individuals who are practically, so to speak, pure. And the idea was to return them to their island. But first, they had to clean it of all the rats that could threaten their lives.

By October 2023, when I visited the breeding center in Santa Cruz, they already had 660 tortoises descended from the Floreanans. They were just waiting for the project to be completed.   

[Freddy]: Look, all these tortoises are going to Floreana. These tortoises are practically old enough to leave. They are turning 10 years old, 10, 11 years old; they are already big tortoises…

These tortoises measured between 45 and 50 centimeters. They were being held in a completely dry and desert habitat, similar to the one they will find in Floreana. Freddy said that they were not being fed every day, so that they would adapt to what their life would be like outside of captivity in their natural habitat. That day, they were not given food or water.

[Freddy]: So, more or less the topography of the ground, look how it struggles to get up there. Can you see? So, often, as they try to get up, they will end up on their back. What is the goal? That they learn to flip around on their own. So that is why we have built the pools in the higher areas. Here, for example, where the tortoises will have difficulty climbing, they often flip around and often have to help each other.

[Lisette]: And that one managed. 

[Freddy]: She already managed it. Look, then of course it’s hard for them at first.

[Lisette]: When I was in Galapagos, they told me that they would take them to Floreana in January 2024. But, on the recommendation of the project technicians, as a control and monitoring measure, they postponed the transfer. Now they are scheduled to go in June and stay in the area where they are known to have lived hundreds of years ago. On an island without helicopters and without poison falling from the sky. No rats and no feral cats.

Ready for them. We will have to see whether they are, too.

[Daniel]: The bait dispersion for rats and feral cats ended in December 2023. By late February 2024, they released five native species of finches from the high and low parts of Floreana Island.

When Lisette asked them about the results of the eradication, they told her that information is not yet public. But they hope to soon announce that the island is free of rodents and feral cats, although they cannot certify it yet.

Lisette Arévalo is a journalist and senior producer at Radio Ambulante. She lives in Quito, Ecuador. This story was edited by Camila Segura, Luis Fernando Vargas and me. Bruno Scelza did the fact-checking. Sound design is by Andrés Azpiri with original music by Ana Tuirán.

Thanks to Francisco Laso for his help with this episode.

The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Pablo Argüelles, Adriana Bernal, Aneris Casassus, Diego Corzo, Emilia Erbetta, Rémy Lozano, Selene Mazón, Juan David Naranjo, Ana Pais, Melisa Rabanales, Natalia Ramírez, Natalia Sánchez Loayza, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo and Elsa Liliana Ulloa. 

Carolina Guerrero is the CEO. 

Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program. 

Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.



Lisette Arévalo

Camila Segura, Luis Fernando Vargas y Daniel Alarcón

Bruno Scelza

Andrés Azpiri

Ana Tuirán

Laura Carrasco


Episode 23