The great Galapagos goat massacre

Why trained marksmen were flown in on helicopters to wipe out the goats on the Galapagos Islands.

Peter Iantorno November 16, 2015

The Galapagos Islands is a place known to many as the ultimate example of nature near untouched by humans. Famed for being home to a vast number of endemic species, the volcanic archipelago, an Ecuadorian territory, provides a unique habitat for the most severely endangered animals in the world.

So precariously balanced is this habitat, than even the slightest change in conditions can take a serious toll on the super-sensitive residents – not least the famous Galapagos giant tortoise.

With the potential to weigh more than 250kg and lifespans in the wild regularly exceeding 100 years, life for these grand old creatures is lived very much in the slow lane. So, back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when sailors introduced goats to the Galapagos Islands as livestock, this caused a serious problem for the tortoises.

Living up to their reputation for eating anything and everything and breeding extremely quickly, by the 1970s the goat population had gone from just a handful to more than 100,000 on the northern portion of Isabela Island alone, and by the mid 1980s, feral goats were overrunning 14 separate islands, encroaching further and further on to the tortoises’ territory, destroying their food and water sources.

With the tortoise population plummeting and the situation fast on the way to becoming irreversible, in 1997 a meeting between the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Park Service was held to try to find a solution. And in the end it was determined that in order to save the tortoises, the only possible action was to completely eradicate the goats.

Now, this may seem like quite an extreme reaction, but the reason the committee gave for coming to this decision was simply that while there are millions of goats on the planet, there are very few giant tortoises, and if even a few goats remained on the islands, they would only breed again and put the tortoises back under threat.

The hunt

With the target established, the next step was to figure out exactly how they were going to exterminate more than 100,000 goats without affecting the rest of the ecosystem. All manner of possible solutions were suggested, from introducing a natural predator for the goats, to poisoning them, but all were adjudged to have too much effect on the natural habitat.

So, after much discussion, it was decided that the only feasible way to remove all the goats from the Galapagos Islands would be to send in trained marksmen in helicopters and pick them off one by one.

It was a programme the likes of which had never been attempted before, which saw teams of trained sharpshooters regularly flown over the islands over a period of nine years, culling goats at will with a perfectly aimed single shot to the head or heart – just like in the video, below.

Judas goat

On first sight, it would appear that this rather extreme method of conservation is, at least, extremely effective and leaves the goats with little chance. However, not long after the helicopter missions started, their success rate began to drop dramatically, as the goats learned to associate the sound of the helicopter with impending death and hid in deep undergrowth whenever they heard the helicopter coming.

This meant that the extermination team had to adapt their strategy yet further, and so the idea for what they called ‘the Judas goat’ was born. In basic terms, the plan was the capture several goats, sterilise them, inject them with pheromones that make them extremely attractive to other goats, fit them with a GPS collar and then sit back and wait while the Judas goat led them to the animals in hiding.

Once they picked up a signal, the marksmen would take out all the other goats, leaving the Judas goat alive so it could lead them to the next hiding flock. The plan was so effective that by the time the programme came to an end in 2006, all but 266 of the goats were destroyed – and those that were left were all sterilised and left intentionally for monitoring purposes.

In all, the mission cost more than $13 million and resulted in the mass slaughter of hundreds of thousands of animals, but crucially, since the end of the operation almost 10 years ago, the number of giant tortoises on the Galapagos has risen from fewer than 3,000 to 19,000 plus.

While the species is still classified as vulnerable, without the extreme and rather unusual action taken, we could very well be living in a world without the giant Galapagos tortoise even today.