September 30, 2015

ELIOT | Galapagos

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“I took the game by storm, just to X-men out

I’m crazy out my mind, I put my life on the line

The tortoise only makes progress when his neck sticks out”

—Ab-Soul

The first job I ever had was pulling weeds in parking lots around Denver. It was a far-cry from what I thought would be a lot like being National Park Ranger, and it certainly did not have the rockstar lifestyle I was looking for in a job at that age. But it paid the bills I had as a 14 year-old (sneakers I definitely should not wear, Chipotle burritos, music I no longer listen to, etc.). Ultimately I was forced to give up and change career paths because a one-man weed pulling operation is difficult to scale. I decided to become an engineer instead.

This summer, I met a woman who never gave up the dream. She proudly marched her herd of cashmere goats all across the Denver Metro area as they munched on weeds along the roads. Not only had she made a career out of pulling weeds, she had outsourced all of the labor to goats. They bulldozed through the unwanted vegetation with an unending appetite. It is no surprise — goats have four stomachs. A herd of them grazing is truly something to behold. Clearing the Colorado roadsides of thistles shows how goats can be some of the most efficient managers of invasive species. The story is quite different though when goats are the invasive species.

There are only two mammals native to the Galapagos Islands: bats and rice rats. Goats are not a native species but had been introduced to the Galapagos sometime in the 1700s by whalers and pirates to make room on their ships for more exotic livestock, like tortoises. In the 1980s there was a goat population explosion due to El Niño-driven changes in vegetation patterns. The goat population rose to an estimated 100,000 on the Galapagoan island of Isabella. I can only imagine how good those times of unchecked growth must have been for the goats. The Galapagos are known for their biodiversity and exotic plant and wildlife. That goats found themselves wandering the world’s biggest and freshest buffet and took all-you-can-eat to heart. No natural predators and a large selection of mates. Soon the herd of feral goats had plowed through the habitats of Galapagos heroes like the tortoise and changed the landscape from one of dense cloud forest and brush to patchy grasslands. There are a lot of places where the goats might have been pretty useful, like clearing thistles in Colorado, but the Galapagos Islands are an icon for conservationism. An invasive species dining its way through the island’s biodiversity was simply untenable. It was the diversity of the islands that helped Charles Darwin develop his Theory of Evolution, and the Galapagoans take pride in that. In 1997, the Charles Darwin Foundation and Galapagos National Park Service decided to restore the islands to their former selves. They set in motion Project Isabela.

Project Isabela was a three-stage plan aiming to “remove” the goats from the islands. It might be worth mentioning before getting any deeper into the details that none of the stages involved rounding up the goats for them to live happily somewhere else. The first stage was ground hunting. Locals were trained to eliminate all goats on the ground with a shot to the head or heart, like a town being terrorized by really placid, vegetarian werewolves. I am not sure if it ever devolved to people kicking in doors, rifles at the ready, screaming, “Do you have any goats in here!?” but they were able to remove more than 55,000 goats. The team was forced to move to the second stage when the goats became more sparsely dispersed. They brought in a team of trained hunters from New Zealand, fired up a helicopter and patrolled the island from the sky, “removing” every goat they spotted with a deadly aerial assault.

Eventually all of the goats with bad hearing and pattern recognition skills were sent to goat heaven, and the original goat population had been reduced by 95 percent. Finding and removing the last 5 percent of the feral goat population was tremendously difficult because the goats would hide whenever the helicopter fired up its rotors. The eye in the sky needed an inside man, so the team moved onto the third and final stage. The final stage was called “Judas Goat,” and the story takes a slightly strange turn at this point. The prototypical candidate for a “Judas Goat” was a gregarious female goat. The team would then spey her, cover her in chemicals to attract males and put a GPS collar around her neck. She would then be released to wander out into the island, and her gregarious nature would garner her a harem of male goats over a few weeks. The team would then start up the chopper and fly to the Judas Goat, “remove” all of the goats around her and take her back to camp before repeating the process. There are now no more feral goats on the Galapagos Islands.

The story of the goats in Galapagos is a dramatic example of how taking something we want from some place and replacing it with something else can lead to serious unintended consequences. Surely the whalers and pirates who tossed their goats overboard in favor of Galapagos tortoises did not consider the eventual devastation it would cause. There are a lot of factors that go into defining the dynamics of a system, and it is hard to always see them all. Sometimes taking a course of action without looking to see all of the moving parts affected can lead to harder times down the road. That does not necessarily mean a careless decision you make might eventually lead to the slaughter of almost 100,000 goats to the tune of $6 million, just a story to illustrate how seemingly trivial decisions can resonate enormously over the course of time. But even if your decisions do blow up in your face, what’s the big deal? We went from cooking a few pots of turtle soup on a pirate ship to the mass-slaughter of an entire feral goat population, and it makes for a pretty interesting story.

Christo Eliot is a graduate student in the College of Engineering. He can be reached at celiot@cornellsun.com. Christo’s Largely Unmoderated Creative Space appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

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