Photo: Kyana Pike, CDF.

An international team of researchers conducted a study on giant Galapagos tortoises and their interactions with human activities in the agricultural areas of Santa Cruz Island, where these emblematic animals go to feed and rest. The objective was to determine the density of tortoises (number of tortoises per hectare) in different farms in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island, to find out what habitat characteristics these species prefer, and how and why they use private farms. This information will allow us to manage and/or mitigate the threats that may arise from tortoises sharing farmland.

“Learning to share land with wildlife, without compromising productivity, or even increasing it, is essential to ensure sustainable human activities. Similarly, endangered wildlife, like giant tortoises, must be protected, due to the ecological role they play in the Galapagos socio-ecosystem”, mentions Lin Schwarzkopf, professor at James Cook University and co-author of the study.

On Santa Cruz Island there are two species of giant tortoise that are in danger of extinction, Chelonoidis porteri being the most abundant and also the one that has the greatest interactions with human activities such as agriculture, or tourism. On this island, giant tortoises migrate to the highlands every year to feed during the dry season, but today almost all of the humid highlands are used for agricultural purposes.

Giant tortoise sharing habitat with livestock on Santa Cruz Island.
Giant tortoise sharing habitat with livestock on Santa Cruz Island. Photo: Kyana Pike, CDF.

“The highlands are one of the most productive areas of Galapagos, which is why both tortoises and people need to make use of it. Each year, hundreds of tortoises use the agricultural area to forage for food and water during the dry season. Knowing their preferences on the farms can help us find ways to conserve the tortoises and at the same time advise the farmers and ranchers who share the land with these giants so that the farms can be more tortoise friendly, without compromising productivity,” explains Kyana Pike, lead author and Ph.D. student at James Cook University.

The results of this research show that the tortoises like short ground vegetation, without too many shrubs that could obstruct their path, and they are less likely to use abandoned farmland, as it is generally full of invasive species such as blackberry or cedrela. These lands are also problematic for farmers and for the conservation and management carried out by the Directorate of the Galapagos National Park. The farms where a greater number of tortoises are found today are those managed for tourism and livestock.

"One solution would be the rehabilitation of these abandoned agricultural areas so that they become productive again, which would benefit both people and tortoises," says Ainoa Nieto Claudín, a researcher at the Charles Darwin Foundation, Saint Louis Zoo, and co-author of the study.

Giant tortoises can often be found foraging with the cows on the extensive pastures.
Giant tortoises can often be found foraging with the cows on the extensive pastures. Photo: Kyana Pike, CDF.

“Research like this helps to figure out the best outcomes for wildlife and people using land. Often only small modifications can make land more wildlife-friendly, without compromising farm productivity.” adds Professor Lin Schwarzkopf.

This is a joint initiative between researchers from the Charles Darwin Foundation, James Cook University, Saint Louis Zoo, Saint Louis University, the Galapagos Conservation Trust, and the Australian National University, in collaboration with the Directorate of the Galapagos National Park and the support of the Houston Zoo. The results have been published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation, which can be accessed through this link.

Kyana Pike is a collaborating scientist with the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), who conducted her PhD studies as part of the Galápagos Tortoise Movement Ecology Programme from 2018 to 2022 through James Cook University. CDF welcomes more than 100 visiting and collaborating scientists annually at its Research Station located in Puerto Ayora. For more information on this program contact cientiThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

On the 17th of October, the governments of Ecuador and Germany, through the KfW Development Bank, signed a 5-year agreement that will fund the implementation of the program "Biodiversity Protection in the Galapagos Islands", for a total value of 15 million euros.
These funds will be used to finance strategies for the prevention, control and eradication of invasive species such as the avian vampire fly (Philornis downsi) and the blackberry (Rubus niveus) – both under investigation by scientific teams from the Charles Darwin Foundation.

Commenting on the agreement, Rakan Zahawi, Executive Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation said:

“The blackberry and Avian Vampire fly are invasive species currently posing some of the biggest threats to Galapagos. Controlling these species is very complex as they were introduced decades ago and have spread over large parts of the archipelago, affecting entire habitats. The effects are felt both in the Galapagos National Park as well as in the agricultural zone. But finding an effective biocontrol mechanism for both invasive species requires time and precision to find the exact species that will work without leading to unwanted impacts on the rest of the ecosystem. We are deeply grateful to KfW for their support in our quest to fight this threat for the good of the Galapagos islands.”

This agreement was signed in the meeting room of the CDF Inspiration Complex. Photo: Juan Manuel García, CDF
This agreement was signed in the meeting room of the CDF Inspiration Complex. Photo: Juan Manuel García, CDF

Charlotte Causton, principal investigator in charge of the project that’s studying the avian vampire fly, added:

“Twenty endemic bird species, including 12 species of Darwin’s finches, are under threat from the Avian Vampire Fly, Philornis downsi. These flies lay their eggs in bird nests and their larvae feed on the young hatchlings, leading to malformations or death. The control of these flies is urgent if we want to save critically endangered species such as the Mangrove finch which has less than 100 birds left in the world. With the Galapagos National Park Directorate and a large group of collaborators, we have already made encouraging progress in understanding the behavior of these flies and now hope to further accelerate our research. Right now, our focus is on developing stop-gap measures to protect bird nests and evaluating the possibility of using biological control as a long-term option to control this deadly fly.”

CDF Executive Director Rakan Zahawi accompanied the Kfw delegation on a visit to the
CDF Executive Director Rakan Zahawi accompanied the KfW delegation on a visit to the "Los Gemelos" site to show the work being done in the Scalesia forest. Photo: Leslie Leon, CDF.

Meanwhile, Dr Heinke Jäger, restoration ecologist and project lead for invasive blackberries, notes the damage this species causes to endangered Scalesia forests:

"The invasive blackberry is posing a great threat to the unique Scalesia forests in Galapagos that had already been reduced to only 1% of their original distribution, due to land use changes in the past. If we lose the Scalesia forests, we will also lose a unique ecosystem made up of endemic species and associated bird and invertebrate species. Thanks to this agreement, we will be able to accelerate the search for a biological control agent for this devastating blackberry in Galapagos and establish a baseline against which we can monitor the effectiveness of the control agent, once released."

CDF will continue to create new partnerships and seek resources to advance scientific research for the conservation of the flora and fauna of this World Heritage Site.

Climate Change Conference COP27

The United Nations Climate Change Conference COP 27 will be held in the coming days in Egypt and the Charles Darwin Foundation is organizing a very special side event on the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor (CMAR). Our scientist, Dr. Inti Keith, CDF senior marine biologist and coordinator of the CMAR Science Working Group will be presenting on Ecological Connectivity in the Eastern Tropical Pacific: From Science to Policy.

Objective of the Side Event:

Ecological connectivity is the scientific justification which underpins the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor (CMAR). It is also considered to be an essential element in the design of ‘climate smart’ MPA networks. The purpose of this event is to discuss the critical role of science when it comes to incorporating connectivity into the design of an MPA network. Panelists will discuss how science informs policy making and underpins decision making in CMAR. The need for broader scientific collaboration in the Eastern Tropical Pacific will also be discussed, as well as sustainable financing to support long term evidence-based decision making in the region.


11:00-11:05 Welcome  by moderator  Patricia Leon, Re:wild
11:05-11:10 Ecological Connectivity in the ETP: From Science to Policy Jose Julio Casas, CMAR Technical Secretariat, Director of Coasts and Seas, Panama.
11:10-11:15 The role of the CMAR Science Working Group Dr. Inti Keith, Coordinator of CMAR Science Working Group and Senior Marine Biologist, Charles Darwin Foundation
11:15-11:20 Regional Scientific Collaboration in the ETP Josh Tewksbury, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama
11:20-11:25 Financial Sustainability for Conservation in the ETP Alicia Montalvo, Manager, Climate Action and Biodiversity, Development Bank of Latin America
11:30-12:00 Q&A followed by moderated Panel Discussion Led by Patricia Leon, Re:wild


Press release- October 4th 2022, Quito. - The Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) presented its 5-yr Strategic Plan and first Impact Report during its 51st Annual General Assembly. The meeting was held at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Quito, Ecuador, on the 3rd and 4th of October, and presided by its new President, Yolanda Kakabadse

More than 60 members of the general assembly were in attendance (in person and virtually), including members of the Board of Directors, local and national authorities, donors, collaborators, scientists and researchers.

Members of the Board of Directors at the 51st Annual General Assembly of the CDF. Photo: Joshua Vela, CDF
Members of the Board of Directors at the 51st Annual General Assembly of the CDF. Photo: Joshua Vela, CDF

Strategic Plan 2022-2027
The Strategic Plan, which sets the course for the Charles Darwin Foundation and its Research Station for the period 2022-2027, is framed around six core pillars, all designed to better position the foundation to address today’s challenges. The pillars include diversifying CDF’s research agenda, establishing new alliances or strengthening of existing ones, improving the research station’s infrastructure, strengthening fundraising efforts, improving organizational efficiency, and working closely with the local community.

CDF’s Executive Director Dr. Rakan Zahawi commented: “Given the great conservation challenges we face, it is more important than ever that we further our scientific understanding of the Galapagos islands, and that we do so in a focused manner so as to effect lasting and transformative change. Over the coming years, we plan to not only build upon our many successes in Galapagos but also expand our research portfolio throughout the Eastern Tropical Pacific region in order to meet the multitude of challenges that this iconic archipelago faces today." 

From left to right: CDF Executive Director Rakan Zahawi, new CDF Board President Yolanda Kakabadse and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility Juan Carlos Holguín. Photo: Joshua Vela, CDF.
From left to right: CDF Executive Director, Rakan Zahawi; new CDF Board President, Yolanda Kakabadse and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Juan Carlos Holguín. Photo: Joshua Vela, CDF.

Impact Report 2021

The Charles Darwin Foundation also launched its first Impact Report, which provides an account of the work carried out by its researchers during 2021. This document, which replaces the Annual Report, shares the more salient results of the 18 marine and terrestrial projects carried out by the CDF in 2021, as well as information on the work carried out together with the Galapagos community.

One of the highlights of the report includes the successful real-time tracking by our shark ecology team of a pregnant female hammerhead shark, named Cassiopeia, who was recorded by our scientists going back and forth over a 4,000 km distance between Galapagos and Panama.

Another highlight of interest, this time from our land birds’ team, are the eight new Vermilion Flycatchers that flew the nest, a record in recent years. Vermilion Flycatchers are a critically endangered species on Santa Cruz Island, consisting of a mere 50 or so individuals. This ambitious and collaborative experimental management program was led by CDF, the Galapagos National Park Directorate and the University of Vienna, among other institutions, with the aim to reduce the impact of invasive species on this emblematic bird.

“People that care about conservation in the Galapagos want to know how we are progressing in our research and our work, which is why we redesigned what used to be our Annual Report in a more tangible way. Our Impact Report not only provides more color and insight into our varied projects, but holds us more accountable through the data we report on, which is key as we progress our work,” added Dr. Zahawi

Participants at the 51st Annual General Assembly of the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands. Photo: Joshua Vela, CDF.
Participants at the 51st Annual General Assembly of the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands. Photo: Joshua Vela, CDF.

Panel discussion on marine conservation
In addition, the General Assembly featured a panel discussion titled "Marine Conservation in Galapagos: Past, Present and Future.” The discussion, which featured a diverse panel, fostered a dialogue with members of the General Assembly on how lessons from the past can allow us to improve the management and design of marine conservancy in light of the new Hermandad Marine Reserve, created in January 2022.

Panel participants included the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility, Ambassador Luis Vayas; the Vice Minister of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition, José Dávalos; the President of the Governing Council of the Special Regime of Galapagos, Katherine Llerena; Yolanda Kakabadse and Rakan Zahawi, respectively President and Executive Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation; and Stuart Banks, marine scientist of the Charles Darwin Foundation.

"Ecuador is a leading force in marine conservation, as well as in the fight against the triple planetary crisis which includes climate change, loss of biodiversity and pollution, particularly plastic pollution. Meaningful change is possible when friendly states within our region collaborate, which is why we promote joint strategies to face challenges of this scale.” - Ambassador Luis Vayas

Panelists at the
Panelists at the "Marine Conservation in Galapagos: Past, Present, and Future" discussion. Photo: Joshua Vela, CDF.

"Security and health go hand in hand. We can't have healthy people if our oceans aren’t healthy. We must continue to dialogue about issues in our oceans, and above all, collaborate to find solutions." - Yolanda Kakabadse

"Galapagos is one of the few places in which the community lives within a protected area, which raises more challenges for conservation. Education of our communities is absolutely key to successfully co-habit with nature." - Katherine Llerena.

Notes to editors Read more about the new President of the Board of Directors
Download the 2021 Impacts Report

For more information, please contact:
Isabel Grijalva
Communications Coordinator
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
+593 98 440 0328

About the Charles Darwin Foundation
The Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands (CDF) is an international non-profit organization dedicated to scientific research. CDF has been present in Galapagos since 1959, thanks to an agreement with the Government of Ecuador, and maintains partnerships with government agencies to provide knowledge and support through scientific research to ensure the conservation of the environment and biodiversity of the Galapagos Archipelago. This organization employs more than 130 people, 53.08% of whom work in the science area. Currently, more than 25 projects are being carried out and more than 100,000 specimens are housed in the  Natural History Collections.

About the CDF General Assembly
The Charles Darwin Foundation's General Assembly meeting has been held yearly since 1971 to allow the organization's highest authorities to learn more about the results of the work carried out during the current year and to make decisions for the execution of its projects and plans for the coming period.

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The ‘Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands’, in French ‘Fondacion Charles Darwin  pour les Iles Galapagos’, Association Internationale sans but lucrative (AISBL), has its registered office at Avenue Louise 54, 1050 Brussels, Belgium. Trade Registry # 0409.359.103

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