While most people think of shrinking habitats and pollution as the major threats to wildlife, disease can also have a catastrophic impact. Even as tourists visit the Galapagos Islands by tour and cruise, scientists from around the world are working to prevent the importation of diseases to the Galapagos Islands. Disease could devastate island wildlife the way Avian Pox and Avian Malaria helped wipe out entire bird species in Hawaii.
The Galapagos Genetics, Epidemiology and Pathology Laboratory (GGEPL) on Santa Cruz Island studies wildlife disease transmission and trains undergraduates, graduate students, Ecuadorian scientists and park rangers to recognize and test for diseases. It also works with the Santa Cruz schools to enrich the science curriculum in the area of conservation.
Controlling and Preventing Wildlife Diseases in the Galapagos Islands - The work of the GGEPL is carried out by the Institute of Integrative and Comparative Biology of England's University of Leeds in partnership with the Biotechnology Program at the University of Guayaquil, Ecuador, and is jointly managed by the Galapagos National Park Service. The Charles Darwin Research Station, the Zoological Society of London, its Institute of Zoology, the St. Louis Zoo and the University of Missouri are collaborating in the program.
The work in the Galapagos Islands is partially funded by Britain's Darwin Initiative, a government grants program that assists poor countries that are biologically diverse. Galapagos Island species currently being monitored include the giant tortoise, sea lions and fur seals. Evolutionary immunity, disease risk and existing diseases are also being studied in some bird species.
Wildlife viruses on Galapagos Island are passed between members of the same species, transmitted by other species, either native or alien, or by an intermediary such as an insect. Of recent concern are the worldwide viruses that many nations are attempting to control. First detected in Uganda in 1937, the mosquito-borne West Nile virus has since spread to 230 species including 130 bird species. The virus has continued to spread in all directions, finding its way into more countries each year. It reached Mexico in 2002, El Salvador in 2003 and Colombia in 2004. Scientists predict it will reach Ecuador by 2008.
Protecting Against West Nile
To protect the Galapagos Islands from the disease, the GGEPL has recommended a number of new bio-security policies. These include:
- Requiring the application of insecticide to the interiors of all transport vessels and aircraft before arriving in the Galapagos Islands;
- Establishing cargo storage methods that minimize breeding and survival during travel to the Galapagos Islands;
- Prohibiting direct flights from anywhere but Ecuador to eliminate the possibility of transmission from countries where the virus has already been identified;
- Establishing a more restrictive policy on the importation of live chickens;
- Instituting a surveillance program at major Galapagos Island ports.
The Ecuador government passed a law in September of 2005 requiring all transport vehicles operating in the Galapagos to be disinfected before arrival.
The aim of GGELP's programs is to detect disease early and identify pathogens before they can spread. With the ever growing threat of more deadly exotic viruses, the work of the GGELP must succeed. The future of the Galapagos Islands depends on it.