One of the unsterilized goats on Isabela Island, usually kept hidden from view
From September to December 2008, the vegan conservation group Sea Shepherd waged a fight to protect the ecosystem and all the animals of the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. This blog recounts what happened in that time, serving for the group.
The post below describes the government reaction to the initial live animal smuggling investigation.
Trying to get the government to take the live animal smuggling problem seriously isn’t easy. The government knows who is smuggling and who is involved in organized crime, but officials are unwilling to hold the actual criminals responsible, and many officials themselves are involved in the illegal breeding business. Thus, it is not in their interest to draw attention to the human culprits.
As the amount of environmental destruction increased and people outside the Galapagos started to take notice, the government had to start addressing the problem. The government thus went on TV to make a statement against all animal smuggling. It was a warning to all who were involved in the business. However, they didn’t make a statement saying they would punish smugglers. They didn’t make a statement saying they would punish illegal buyers. They didn’t make a statement saying they would punish illegal breeders, since so many officials were involved in the business. Unwilling to implicate any humans, the only safe target to exact justice on were the animals. The government made a statement by murdering a purebred dog on public television, warning everyone in the Galapagos that they would kill any purebred dogs they could find, because the dogs were the problem. As we said, this statement was unfortunately the most typical reaction by the government.
Another telling example happened when I investigated the state of chemical and waste dumping in the national park. I photographed the state of the Isabela Island garbage dump to show the Galapagos government the state of that part of the park.
Feral cats at the Isabela Island garbage dump.
Trash covers 80 square kilometers of the national park on Isabela Island, kept out of sight from the usual paths of tourists.
Everything from chemical to battery waste is dumped indiscriminately into the Isabela Island national park garbage heap by the municipality.
When I brought the photos back, the government decided that the problem wasn’t the rampant corruption that lead to the continual dumping of trash into the national park. They decided that the problem wasn’t the indiscriminate dumping of chemical and battery and mechanical waste into the Galapagos forest. They decided that the ultimate problem of the dump was the kittens inhabiting the dump. They decided to shoot all the cats dead, in order to protect the island birds, thus solving the problem of the dump.
Another prominent example of this government reaction is Project Isabela. Project Isabela is the government’s program to eradicate the many goats on Isabela and Santiago Islands. Non-native, invasive goats breed and spread all over Isabela and Santiago Islands each year, destroying the flora of the islands, leading many native tortoises and other endemic creatures of the Galapagos to starve to death (goats are one of the main reasons Lonesome George is now the last living tortoise from Pinta Island). After relocating goats in accessible areas of the islands, the government hired people to fly in helicopters and shoot the remaining goats in inaccessible mountain areas, to protect the ecosystem (a step approved by many conservation groups around the world, to be fair). However, the reason the government keeps having to eradicate the goats every year, is because of people who breed the goats and release more of them into the environment each year (it’s not illegal to own goats, but it is illegal to release them where they’re not allowed). It seems like it should be relatively simple to arrest the few people doing this annual releasing to stop the need for this slaughter. However, as I discovered upon investigating Isabela Island, some of the people breeding goats worked for the government, and there was no way that government workers were going to arrest themselves.
Some people in the government eventually secretly lead me to this hidden, unsterilized goat on Isabela Island, that I photographed with a zoom lens. This goat is owned by people in the Isabela municipality, although they were trying to keep it quiet.
Other people who don’t work for the government (who are much harder to catch) also continue to put goats on each island, to hunt and use for food each year. If no humans are safe to arrest, then the only safe targets to continually exact justice on, are the goats.
These findings were discouraging. I went back to my mentor, who explained the main problem: “The Galapagos is a small community. Not every single person in the government is directly involved with organized crime. But no one is willing to arrest their neighbor’s brother or their cousin’s best friend, over a dog. No one is willing to arrest their co-worker, over a goat. It’s very easy to show results by saying you’re eradicating the animals responsible for destroying the environment, and it leaves people blameless for these crimes.”
At this point, I realized I had to accomplish a lot more if I wanted to keep more animals from getting killed to serve political reasons.
Next Monday’s blog post will cover increased actions and their results.