Guest blog – RGS talk given by GCT Chairman Mark Collins written by Andy Donnelly

The Chairman of the Galapagos Conservation Trust (GCT) shines a light on Darwin’s voyage of discovery and how GCT is building on his legacy.

This weeks guest blog has been kindly written by Andy Donnelly who is the Director at Enviropartner who also works for GCT two days a week.

I started working with GCT just a few weeks ago to support the team’s programme development. In that time I’ve been amazed by how far reaching the projects are. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that at least one has truly global significance. This was brought home to me when I attended a lecture given to the East Anglian branch of the Royal Geographical Society by Dr Mark Collins, GCT Chairman.

Mark’s presentation provided some real insights into both the historical and contemporary importance of science in Galapagos. He initially painted a rich picture of the social history surrounding Darwin’s famous journey, his family influences and how the theories that now underpin all ecological thinking took shape over the course of his voyage aboard the Beagle.  Mark charted the ship’s course across the globe and described how a Divinity student by training, but naturalist by passion, young Darwin made observations that challenged the accepted position of the time that the world’s flora and fauna was static and had been since Creation.

Mark Collins ©Holly Forsyth

Darwin arrived at the Galapagos Islands late in the voyage as a five week stop over to make a general survey of the islands and collect supplies. However in that short time he saw living examples of the theories that had been shaping as he had collected fossils and specimens en route. In Galapagos, he saw clear evidence of how living organisms are moulded by their environment through survival of the fittest subsequently creating new species. A seminal but often over-looked group of these organisms for Darwin were the mockingbirds – one of his first recorded observations hinting at the inter-connectedness of species highlighted the striking similarities but notable differences of the Galapagos mockingbirds to one specimen he had collected earlier in Chile.

Mark then leapt forward to show Galapagos today, wowing the audience with images from the GCT photography competition library (which you can enter now). The spectacular flora and fauna of the Islands were even more remarkable when considering the context of Darwin’s discoveries. He also showed the lasting impact of early human use of the Islands as an effective larder, taking natural food sources and introducing new species such as goats, cats and rats. Unfortunately, the result of these introductions has been that many of the species Darwin studied are now critically endangered and even locally extinct.

Mark’s talk then focussed on a current project to reverse this trend which has implications, if successful, for archipelagos and biodiversity conservation around the world. The attempt to restore Floreana island to its former glory is within sight of achieving its early goals. Essential ground work with local communities has gone well through partner organisations including the Galapagos National Park and Island Conservation, and the project is moving into its final preparation to remove all introduced predators that have devastated the island’s ecology.  Mark showed how we know this can trigger rapid regrowth of native vegetation, in particular the Opuntia (prickly pear) and subsequent reintroductions of locally extinct species such as the Floreana racer, Floreana mockingbird and Floreana giant tortoise can occur.

Floreana mockingbird ©Luis Ortiz Catedral

This has never been achieved before on a large island with a human population but the team on Floreana are close to a major breakthrough. If we can fund some critical intermediate steps, the UN Global Environment Facility will back the programme with support for the most costly component, the eradication of invasive species.

So thanks to Mark for a hugely informative, entertaining lecture series and please help us  get the project over the line by making a donation to support the Floreana restoration. It really is an opportunity to make Galapagos a blue print for biodiversity conservation on islands around the world.