New road to Quito airport - FINALLY!

Though the new Quito airport was opened in early 2013, road access had been delayed, leading to at times very long trips to and from the city - stretching to over an hour.  The 12 km distance between the airport and the city was traversed via a roundabout, 42 km journey, a tortuous trip down mountain slopes, through traffic snarled by shopping and strip malls in Cumbayá and Tumbaco, and, worst of all across an aging bridge built in the 1970s that created an eye of a needle over the narrow Chiche river.

Now, travel times have declined dramatically as the new route reduces the distance to the airport by a third and promises to be far less congested than the previous roads. Driving at the legal 90km/hour limit, the new road can be driven in about seven minutes, compared with what could take a frustrating 45 minutes. The total ground travel time from downtown will be slashed to around 25 minutes from 77, according to optimistic estimates from city hall.

This is wonderful news for all travelers to the Galapagos islands transiting through Quito - even those simply considering an overnight there.   It puts Quito again on a competitive basis with Guayaquil in terms of hosting overnight visitors.   CNH Tours has used Quito as its continental base for years, but had been advising transiting guests not considering any continental stays to pass though Guayaquil since the new Quito airport was opened.  Quito is a much prettier city, and more enjoyable to visit than coastal Guayaquil.

(thanks to Analytica Investments for much of the material in this news item)

Transit control card - $20 as of March 1st

Within Ecuador, the province of Galapagos is the only place where Ecuadorians don't have the right to simply move to.   This unprecedented situation arose after the islands became a magnet for internal immigration, as people from the continent sought out better opportunities elsewhere.   The islands being very small and having very limited natural resources such as water and arable land, simply could not take the massive inflow of immigrants.   As a result, the new constitution made Galapagos into a bit of a distinct province, in which immigration was treated very much as it would be in an independent country.

These rules apply to foreigners as well.

To cover the costs of this de facto immigration department, the government set up the "Transit Control Card", which electronically tracks the comings and goings of visitors to the island.  The price has been $10 per card for the past 7-8 years, but will go up to $20 on March 1st 2015.   CNH Tours believes this is a small price to pay for the maintenance of an effective immigration control service to the islands.  

Sales tax to be applied on cruises purchased in Ecuador

CNH has learned that Ecuador's internal revenue service has started applying regulations more seriously - in that it will no longer consider cruises as a transportation service, but as a tourism product.  Whereas transportation services (buses, taxis) are exempt from charging 12% tax on sales, tourism operations are not. 

Apparently, this will not be charged to people buying their cruises outside of Ecuador.  But if you are inside Ecuador, Ecuadorian or foreigner, you will be charged the extra 12%. 

 

 

 

Gift shop the focus of cash flow efforts

(Unashamedly copy-pasted from "The Guardian" newspaper - published 30 November 2014)

Galápagos Islands wildlife threatened by battle between locals and scientists

Researchers’ souvenir outlet has to close after pressure from local traders and the Ecuador government, denying Darwin group a precious $8,000 a week in sales to tourists
Galapagos Giant Tortoise
A giant tortoise, one of the unique species to be found on the Galapagos Islands Photograph: Tui De Roy/Minden Pictures/Corbis

Wildlife on the Galápagos is under a new threat. The scientific group that has helped to preserve the islands’ giant tortoises and other unique creatures is on the brink of closure – because of a row about a gift shop.

Local traders have objected to the Charles Darwin Foundation running a souvenir shop at its research station at Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island. They claim it was siphoning business from their own shops and in July local officials, backed by the government of Ecuador which owns the Galápagos, ordered the station’s shops to be shut.

The impact for the foundation – which carries out wildlife research in the Galápagos and provides key scientific advice on protecting wildlife there – has been devastating, its executive director Swen Lorenz told the Observer.

“The shop provides us with about $8,000 a week in income from the sale of souvenirs to tourists. Losing that key source of funds was bad enough but it has also affected other donations. People don’t see why they should give us money if the Ecuador government will not support us by letting us run a gift shop.

“There has been a dreadful chain reaction following the shop’s closure and we have run out of cash.” The foundation is now two-and-a-half months late with salaries for its staff and some projects have had to be suspended. One key staff member has already left.

“We are now on the brink,” added Lorenz. “It’s going to be touch and go. The Ecuador government has since said it supports us, but unless we get some money from them and are allowed to reopen our shop in the next few weeks we will have to close.”

The Galápagos are an archipelago of volcanic islands in the Pacific, 560 miles west of the coast of Ecuador, and are renowned for the species of birds and reptiles unique to the islands. These creatures include the marine iguana, the only species of iguana that can forage at sea; the Galápagos giant tortoise, the world’s largest tortoise species; and the Galápagos hawk.

The islands also played a key role in helping Charles Darwin to formulate his theory of natural selection. On his round-the world voyage on the Beagle, the young biologist stayed on the islands for a month in 1835, noting the subtle variations in species from each of the islands.

In particular, Darwin was fascinated by differences in colour and beak shape in the islands’ mockingbirds and finches (now known as Darwin’s finches), observations that played a critical role in developing his evolutionary theory.

In the 20th century the Galápagos became a popular tourist destination and the islands have suffered from persistent problems associated with the introduction of pests and loss of habitat. The Charles Darwin Foundation has played a key role in helping the islands overcome these threats – for example, in setting up a breeding programme for several of the islands’ different species of giant tortoises.

The foundation was also involved in eradicating feral goats from several islands where herds had stripped them of their vegetation (CNH Tours editor's comment:  My husband was in charge of that project). Once these goats had been removed, giant tortoises could then be reintroduced to their former habitats. However, new threats continue to bombard the islands. The latest, said Lorenz, is a recently introduced parasitic fly, Philornis downsi, which is devastating bird species – including Darwin’s finches. The fly lays its eggs in nests with incubating birds and its larvae feed on the blood of the nestlings, sometimes causing up to 100% chick mortality in a particular nest.

At least 16 of 20 song bird species only found in Galápagos are now threatened. “This is another very serious threat to the wildlife of the Galápagos,” added Lorenz. “We have developed a strategy to deal with it, but it is touch and go whether we will be in existence long enough to implement it.

“This matter has to be resolved very quickly or the islands’ wildlife will suffer severe damage.”

Darwin Station on the Precipice

The non-profit Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS), the oldest and largest scientific operation in the Galapagos Islands and an iconic visitor site, is at a high risk of forever closing its doors before the end of 2014 according to its director, and CNH Tours friend, Swen Lorenz. 

Why?  It boils down to the sticks being put in its fundraising wheels by the local mayor Leopoldo Bucheli, who is under pressure by small t-shirt shop owners to prevent the Station to operate its own Station store.   The recently refurbished store opened in May this year, selling almost exclusively Ecuadorian products.  The unrestricted funds so generated were part of a strategy developed three years ago to deal with the major cash-flow issues at the Station, which runs a $3million annual operating budget (it's internet connection alone costs $3,500 per month, let alone the high cost of electricity, water supply, maintenance, management of large collections of animal and plant collections, the most important research library on Galapagos in the world, waterfront facilities etc. etc.).

The Station, previous run by intelligent and well meaning scientists, had gradually been run to the ground over the past 10 years for lack of concerted attention to the bottom line.  In 2011, Swen Lorenz stepped in as a volunteer at first, recognizing the tremendous turn-around potential of the Station.  A London financier, Swen had a knack for business and succeeded in dealing with many of the financial "hangover" issues he had inherited.  The Station store was on track to get back into the black, relying in good part on the generation of up to US$300,000 of unrestricted cash flow per year from the Shop, to cover all those costs associated in the operation of a remote research station, and that are hard to pay for from research grants or for other fund-raising efforts.  

CDF urgently needs your support.

A fundraising plan is in place to raise signficant funds to transform the Station. However unless the Station raises funds now, its entire operation will not survive until the end of 2014.

​The Charles Darwin Foundation needs to raise $1,000,000 before the end of 2014 to avoid bankruptcy and secure funding to continue our work in protecting these Islands and their natural inhabitants.

Please, to enable nature and science to have a voice in Galapagos:

  • Donate what you can using this link here
  • Purchase a CDF online membership here
  • Share our cause with your friends and supporters online by downloading our fundraising and awareness media pack: here 

CNH Tours donated $1,000 to the Station a few months ago this year, and we are encouraging others to help in any way they can to ensure that this beacon of good science.

You may also wish to send a note to the town of Puerto Ayora's mayor, letting him know that without the Station working in town, you would see no reason to visit Puerto Ayora at all during your Galapagos cruise and ask him not to obstruct the Station store operations.

Leopoldo Bucheli:  leopoldobucheli@hotmail.com

Let's be sure the sign below can be removed soon.

CDRS Closing sign

 

Another cargo ship slips under the waves...

Thankfully the "San Cristobal" (built in 1966) did so soon after having left the mainland on its way to the islands on November 17 - so there's no risk of an oil slick affecting Galapagos, nor of debris scattered among their wild shores.  The San Cristobal seems to have developed a list of 15 degrees before capsizing completely and going down in 10 minutes no more than 100 km from the coast (Galapagos is 1,000 km away) - the crew was unharmed.  This comes 6 months after another such cargo ship sank, the Galapaface (who names these ships?), but this time just off the shores of San Cristobal island in Galapagos (see our earlier news stories in May and July this year).  

Though not a risk for Galapagos ecosystems, this sinking, right on the heals the other, is a big blow to many small merchants in the islands.  The ships carry all kinds of goods, from food, household goods, hardware, building supplies, gas cannisters, even vehicles.  Very few of these small merchants insure their shipments, and those having received a blow last May, may now find themselves completely bankrupt.  There is a real risk of shortages of supplies in the coming weeks and months.  

There was a time back in the 1970s when the islands were served by one cargo ship which came once a month - but rapid growth in both population (from perhaps 5,000 then, to 30,000 now), and the great expectations of material comforts and a rapid increase in land based tourism have led to the need for a  much more regular supply of goods to the islands.  This increased back-and-forth between the islands and the mainland also poses a risk for the introduction of new species to the islands. Introduced species are the greatest threat to Galapagos biodiversity.

So everything is connected.  One silver lining in this and the earlier sinkings is the hope that the ships will be replaced by new ones that meet the strictest bio-security and phytosanitary standards, reducing the chance that they will be vectors for the introduction of harmful pests to the islands.   Let's keep our fingers crossed. 

Española tortoises in Good (saddlebacked) shape

(Reuters) - Conservationists said on Tuesday they have brought giant tortoises found on the Galapagos island of Espanola back from the brink of extinction, gaining a foothold strong enough to allow humans to leave the reptiles alone.

Numbering just 15 some five decades ago, the tortoises, which can live as long as two centuries, now number about 1,000 and can sustain themselves, according to a study published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

"We saved a species from the brink of extinction and now can step back out of the process. The tortoises can care for themselves," said James Gibbs, a vertebrate conservation biology professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) College of Environmental Science and Forestry who led the study.

Española giant Galapagos tortoises, their scientific name is Chelonoidis hoodensis, measure 3 feet (1 meter) long with a saddle-backed shell.

They live up to 150 or 200 years, eating grasses and leaves during the wet season and cactus during the dry season on an arid, low, rocky island measuring only 23 square miles (60 square km). Gibbs said the population numbered perhaps 5,000 to 10,000 tortoises before the arrival of people.

"The tortoises were hunted by buccaneers, whalers and other sea goers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries," added Linda Cayot, a herpetologist who is science advisor to the Galapagos Conservancy group.

"They collected them live, stacked them in their holds, and had fresh meat on their long voyages. Tortoises can live up to a year without food or water, so a natural source of fresh meat," she said.

Gibbs said the tortoises had been given up as extinct by the time the islands were protected as a national park in 1959.

In the 1960s, only 14 tortoises were found on Espanola, 12 females and two males. They were all taken into captivity and a third male was found in the San Diego Zoo. From those 15 tortoises, the population was rebuilt through a breeding program in captivity before they were reintroduced to the island.

"Nobody knew how to breed tortoises in captivity and the best zoos around the world had failed. The Galapagos National Park figured it out and actually became exceedingly effective at it," Gibbs said. 

The success story of the Espanola subspecies comes in sharp contrast to the closely related tortoise found on the Galapagos island of Pinta. In 2012, a male dubbed Lonesome George died in captivity as conservationists tried in vain to find a way to breed him. He was the last of his subspecies.

Even though the human threat was eliminated by protecting the Espanola tortoise, the reptile still faced a formidable foe in goats that inhabited the island for 90 years before being removed in the 1970s.

Introduced to the island by humans, the goats mowed down just about everything in their path, including most of the cactuses the tortoises thrive on.

Unlike the grassy place it once was, the island now is covered with woody vegetation unsuited for tortoises. Gibbs said it could take hundreds of years for cactuses to reach previous levels.

Charles is back!

(this article is copy pasted from the Charles Darwin Foundaiton news release of yesterday)The Archipelago's must-have selfie! 12 months in development, our Darwin statue has finally arrived to the home of science in Galapagos. We decided it was time to move away from the tired, weathered looking Darwin profile so often connected to Galapagos. Our statue embodies the young man who visited the Islands - full of energy, notebook and magnifying glass close by, ready for the gap year of a lifetime.

The above photo shows the team behind the statue: renowned Galapagos scientist and life-long Darwin scholar, Godfrey Merlen (left -  CNH Tours's note:  Godfrey is one of our oldest Galapagos friends) with Ecuadorian sculptor Patricio Ruales. Godfrey has put together a fabulous article about his involvement on the project. Darwin’s Right Hand Man describes his personal joy, pride and fear (of turning to clay) all for the love of his hero.Check out the complete article below.
 
Click here to read Darwin's Right Hand Man by Godfrey Merlen

 

Darwin Statue

Lonesome George’s Final Resting Place – What do YOU think?

There’s an animated debate going on right now about the final resting place for the icon of Galapagos, and by extension, all island conservation challenges – even all conservation challenges worldwide:  Where should the stuffed and mounted remains of Lonesome George (LG), the Pinta Island Galapagos tortoise so famous for having been the last of his kind for at least 40 years, rest?   LG died in 2012.  His remains were sent to the Museum of Natural History in New York where they were given careful treatment and restored.   He was unveiled a few days ago at the museum, where he is on display until January.   Aftr that, he’s to travel back to Ecuador.   Galapagos residents are of course furious at the idea that the Ecuadorian government’s proposal to have him displayed in Quito, in exchange for a bronze replica to be standing guard in the islands.    A heated discussion is filling social media these days on the matter.

The Guardian newspaper has come up with a novel idea: Lonesome George, already an emissary for conservation work worldwide, should go on a slow (tortoise paced) world tour to help educate and sensitive people on the challenges of species survival in a rapidly changing, globalizing world with fewer and fewer wild spaces in which to seek refuge.  See their article here:

http://www.theguardian.com/science/animal-magic/2014/sep/22/lonesome-george-tortoise-world-tour

Lonesome George’s species was killed off by a combination of hungry whalers and seafarers looking for fresh meat to eat, the accidental introduction of egg and hatchling tortoise eating rats and pigs to Pinta island in the 19th century.    Giant tortoise species on other Galapagos islands managed to survive this pressure.  Those surviving on islands with rats and pigs remain in a precarious state.  Thankfully, conservation efforts by the Galapagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Foundation are helping improve matters.

Below:  LG on display in New York

LG and Linda

Penguin pictures petitioned by profressor

I was just contacted by a member of the leading penguin research team in Galapagos.   They've been studying penguin populations since the 1970s.    Thanks to their work, they've managed to understand some of the leading threats to penguin survival (some include absence of suitable nesting sites) and have taken action to support their conservation.   One the biggest (and most expensive) challenges is carrying out regular population surveys.  YOU CAN NOW HELP.  By taking pictures of penguins, and recording where and when you did so, and sending them to the researchers, you will help them get a lot more valuable information on penguins.  See their website:  http://www.igalapagos.org/

 Penguins