Raptor Center helps tortoises in Galapagos

The center will help rebalance the ecosystem on the island of Pinzón.

Hailey Colwell


The University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center director traveled to the Galapagos island of Pinzón on Thursday to help preserve the endangered Pinzón giant tortoise population.

Workers from the Raptor Center will tag team the effort to temporarily capture the Galapagos hawks that prey off a population of invasive black rats. Scientists will poison the rats, which have threatened the tortoise population by eating its eggs and hatchlings.

The Raptor Center began its work in the Galapagos in August 2010 when the Ecuadorian government requested raptor experts to help the hawks avoid secondhand poisoning. In 2011 the center joined with other scientists to eradicate invasive rats on a group of small islands.

The rats were accidentally introduced to the islands by pirates and whalers during the 17th and 18th centuries. Scientists have worked to preserve the tortoise population by raising the hatchlings in captivity and releasing them once they are too large for the rats to eat.

Raptor Center Executive Director Julia Ponder, who left for Pinzón on Thursday, said she expects to hold 30 to 35 hawks in captivity for about six weeks until their risk of encountering the rat poison is reduced. She and her colleagues will monitor the hawks after releasing them and provide supplemental food as the birds adjust.

Ponder said she’s excited to work with the species.

“It is a very cool population of birds.”

Though she said she knows most of what to expect from working on the pilot project, the task ahead presents some challenges.

“Trapping all of the hawks is always a concern,” she said. “We were successful last time, but until they are all in captivity, it is a concern.”

She said Pinzón is much larger than the islands she worked on for the last projects, and its less-accessible terrain may be an obstacle.

She said although she’ll only come into contact with the hawks, she looks forward to playing a part in rebalancing the island’s ecosystem.

“That’s a population of iconic giant tortoises that will go extinct unless something’s done,” she said, “And we’re going to do something.”

 “We are really helping restore for the long term the balance that was on these islands a long time ago,” said Gail Buhl, education program manager for the Raptor Center.

Buhl will take Ponder’s place in Pinzón at the end of November. She said she’ll focus on managing and feeding the hawks in captivity before they’re released.

She said she looks forward to representing the University in such a unique part of the world.

“It is such a wonderful place, and to be a part of a project that is really far-reaching and helping the Galapagos really get back to what it should be is amazing to me.”