The Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island is one of the most popular stops on any visit to the Galapagos. But what exactly does it do in the islands, and why is it so important?
History of the Charles Darwin Research Station
Efforts to protect the Galapagos Islands began in the 1930s. It wasn’t until the 1950s, however, that things began to gel. With the support of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and UNESCO, the Belgian-based Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) was established in 1959 to begin building the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS). This would be the headquarters for CDF’s conservation projects.
The Ecuadorian government signed a 50-year agreement with CDF. In August 2016, the CDRS’ mission was extended for another 25 years. CDF’s scientific research will focus on global warming, the impact of human activity in the Galapagos, innovation of sustainable systems and the islands’ biodiversity. Its work will be conducted in both Galapagos National Park and the Galapagos Marine Reserve. CDF will collaborate with Ecuador’s higher education and scientific institutions, as well as with internationally recognized universities and research institutions.
The early history of the CDRS, before tourism became the mainstay of the islands, is fascinating reading. Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, member of the CDF Executive Councils since 1959, discusses the necessities of preserving the Galapagos Islands and the search for the research station’s headquarters in his work, Galapagos: The Noah’s Ark of the Pacific. Roger Perry recounts his experiences as the CDRS director (1964-1970) in Island Days.
CDRS and the Preservation of the Galapagos Islands
Since its inception, the CDRS has worked with national and international institutions and scientists to study and preserve the Galapagos Islands’ unique flora and fauna. In its over 50 years of existence, CDF has helped to establish the giant tortoise breeding program, thus saving these gentle giants from extinction on Española and other islands, as well as the land iguana program. It has aided the Ecuadorian government in setting up quarantine inspection to prevent the introduction of alien species to the islands, and in programs to eradicate goats, rats and other invasive animals. CDRS scientists’ research also was instrumental in the creation of one of the world’s largest marine reserves.
One current research project is on the elimination of the Philornis downsi fly, an introduced species that kills endangered Mangrove finch and other songbird hatchlings. Another project is Galapagos 2050, an innovative program to reforest the islands with native plant species. As well, CDRS scientists continue monitoring over 100 species on land and in the sea, from birds to sharks.
Over this past half-century, CDF’s mission also has extended to education, working in the islands’ schools and with the local communities. CDF has trained national park personnel, and over 2,000 students from Galapagos and mainland Ecuador.
CDF has been recognized for its work in preserving the Galapagos Islands’ unique environment. These awards include the Sultan Qaboos Prize for Environmental Preservation (UNESCO, 1999), J. Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Prize (2001), Society for Conservation Biology Award for Distinguished Achievement (2002), Cosmos International Award (Japan, 2002) and the BBVA Foundation Prize (2004).
Visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station
Many cruise ships stop at Santa Cruz Island to visit the research station in Puerto Ayora. If you’re an independent traveler, though, you can easily get there yourself.
The Charles Darwin Research Station is located at the southern end of Avenida Charles Darwin, about 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) from downtown Puerto Ayora. Between the national park headquarters and the station, you’ll encounter the path to the tortoise breeding corrals and Lonesome George exhibition hall.
At the station itself you can visit the CDRS museum which also has a gift shop, snack shop and observation tower. The G. Corley Smith Library houses one of the largest Galapagos-specific collections in the world. Paths lead to gardens and displays explaining CDF’s latest projects. As well, there are several beaches that are popular with local Galapagos residents. Before you leave, be sure to take your photo with Charles Darwin (his statue, that is, at the Fischer Sciences Building).
CDRS also has an internationally-recognized herbarium with the most complete Galapagos plant collection in the world and an insect collection, both open to researchers. The science research laboratories and offices are closed to the public.
From any corner in the world, you can browse the CDF’s herbarium, museum collections and select publications through its Datazone. The library’s catalog is also available online. And if you can’t (yet) make it to the Galapagos Islands, check out Google 360, a “street-view” trek of these enchanted isles, another project in which the CDF was a partner.
For generations to come, the Charles Darwin Foundation and its Charles Darwin Research Station will continue to provide essential scientific information to the Ecuadorian government and local communities, to help protect these special Galapagos Islands.
Photo credit: Aaron Logan