What Would Darwin Do? Killing Goats So Others May Live

Photo courtesy of Lind Xu

Why are environmentalists shooting goats? Why have they undertaken an elaborate plan to systematically kill hundreds of thousands of goats by means of aerial and ground hunting operations? Why to preserve life, of course.

Project Isabela: Eradicating Goats in the Name of Biodiversity
Project Isabela is an operation spearheaded by the Charles Darwin Research Center starting in 1998, and its sole purpose was to eliminate the ever-burgeoning population of non-native goats, pigs, and donkeys from the fragile island ecosystems of the Galapagos.

Those species eat the food supply of the native species and usurp the drastically limited water supply. They crowd out natives like giant tortoises by forcing them to compete for both. As the goats and pigs flourished, scientists foresaw grave consequences. They decided to act, so they initiated one of the largest and most controversial conservation efforts in recent memory.

And act they did—by getting 500,000 rounds of American-bought ammunition into the hands of sharpshooters and going on the hunt.
I've followed the teachers to a talk with Felipe Cruz, the Director of the Charles Darwin Research Center, who played an integral role in executing Project Isabela. He explains the project's logistics, strategy, and—depending on your ethical stance—overwhelming success.

The Most Effective System for Killing Goats Ever Devised
Using advanced GPS technology, Judas goats, hunting dogs, a sophisticated database, and a combination of aerial and ground hunting operations, the Project eventually eradicated over 150,000 thousand goats from the Galapagos using an average of 1.4 bullets per goat.

One primary tactic was to release a bugged goat into the wild where it would seek out others of its kind. The GPS would alert the scientists when the Judas goat had joined a community, so when intensive ground sweeps were conducted, the scientists and hunters would have precise information. That precision led to the supreme efficacy of the project, which cost a relatively scant 10 million dollars. The program will be fully completed in 2010, when bugged goats left to monitor the population will confirm the widespread success.

The Ethical Question of Euthanizing for Preservation
Of course, at the heart of this story lies a difficult ethical dilemma—is it morally acceptable to eliminate thousands of creatures to protect others? The Galapagos has one of the most fragile ecosystems in the world, as the species that have survived and thrived there for centuries have struck a delicate equilibrium. At the rate that the goats, which were only recently introduced to the islands as livestock, were proliferating it wouldn't have been long before they'd caused the extinction of myriad precious species.

Yet the goats had become wild, subsisting on the islands by no fault of their own. Additionally, they had undoubtedly proved the more adaptable species on the island—but does survival of the fittest apply when animals are introduced to a habitat by humans? If not, then why? The goats were shepherded to the island against their will much as the tortoises and iguanas that floated over on log rafts long ago were. Can we ignore the fact that humans are the most influential species on earth, and act as though won't impact any habitat we encounter?

All questions worth contemplating, none which I have time to attempt to sort out here. But one thing's for certain about the humans: introduce us to pristine, delicately balanced islands, and within fifty years or so, and what do you get?

An ecosystem that's still mortally threatened and 150,000 dead goats.

30 of the top teachers in the US are making a trek from the Florida Everglades to the Galapagos Islands in order to engage a series of global conservation issues in the Toyota International Teacher Program. I'm traveling alongside the educators to report on what we discover about the threats and wonders on modern day Galapagos.

Tags: Conservation | Ecuador | Endangered Species | Galapagos