WOD2014: Rapid Response Network

Tomorrow is World Oceans Day; a day that commemorates the beauty and importance of our oceans which are so integral to our survival. As can be expected for a tropical archipelago, the Galapagos Islands have an especially intimate relationship with the seas. In the run-up to World Oceans Day we have been posting a series of daily blog articles on the marine wildlife and associated conservation projects in Galapagos. Today’s post focuses on the Rapid Response Network.

WOD14

During the Galapagos sea lion breeding season of 2011, researchers at the University of San Francisco, Quito (USFQ), noticed something terribly wrong. There was an abnormally high level of abortions, still births and mortality of newborn pups. At 40%, the 2011 breeding season mortality rate was 2-3 times higher than in previous years.

Whilst USFQ studied the disease that was affecting sea lion populations on San Cristobal, the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GPND) requested the assistance of the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) in creating a Sea Lion Rapid Response project.

Following this, a programme was initiated to develop a coordinated response network system to effectively and promptly detect sick, injured or dead marine animals and evaluate their cause of death. Previously, many animals that were washed ashore were either buried on the beach or simply left to be removed by the tide, meaning that scientists lost potentially important information about the health status of these animals and their cause of death.

In May 2012, funding from GCT was used to get the programme started and very quickly the infrastructure necessary to deal with animal emergencies was developed. Since then, the Rapid Response Network (RRN) has been active and a number of other aspects have been implemented.

There is now a 24/7 hotline for members of the local community to call if they come across sick, injured or dead marine animals, and an RRN Operating Manual for the GNPD with operating protocols for specific handling techniques, first aid, sampling and data collection for the animals found.

A database of animal casualties has been compiled to record events and their causes. In 2013 alone, a total of 74 casualties were logged. Although the RRN is primarily aimed at marine wildlife, it also now records numerous terrestrial casualties as well.

Another aspect of the programme has been to engage the local community to raise awareness of the RRN and ensuring the continued success of the network. Around 500 Galapagos National Park Guides and 75 Park Rangers have been taught about the RRN so that they understand the protocol for reporting injured wildlife found on their tours.

To share a heart-warming success story, thanks to the RRN, CDF was recently able to rescue, nurse and, after 17 days, release an olive ridley turtle. It was originally found by Park Rangers near Santa Cruz Island, trapped and wounded in an industrial fishing device, but thanks to the efforts and coordination of the RRN it is now back in the wild swimming freely. (Watch a video of the turtle being released here)

The RRN has become such an integral part of the National Park management that in April 2014 the GNPD took total responsibility for the project. It hopes to continue its outreach and eventually build up a local volunteer network so that more and more eyes will be looking out for the health of Galapagos wildlife.

by Jose Hong

edited by Pete Haskell