Protecting priceless biodiversity in the Galapagos Islands

Academics: Dr S. Goodman, Dr A. Bataille and Dr G. Eastwood, Faculty of Biological Sciences

External partners: Professor A. Cunningham, Zoological Society of London;  Dr V. Cedeño, Concepto Azul/University of Guayaquil; Dr M. Kilpatrick and Dr P. Daszak, EcoHealth Alliance; Dr L. Kramer and  L. Patiño and Dr M. Cruz, Galapagos National Park Service/University of Guayaquil; and the New York State Department of Health

Studies by the University of Leeds and collaborators into the pathways for potential introduction of new diseases into the Galapagos Islands led to changes in legislation and new biosecurity measures to protect the unique biodiversity of the archipelago. 

The Galapagos Islands have immense value to society for their biodiversity, and drive a large part of the Ecuadorian tourist industry. In order to preserve the unique character of these islands, it is essential to prevent the introduction of foreign species and diseases by putting in place appropriate science-based biosecurity protection measures.

Research carried out by researchers at Leeds and collaborators at other institutions to identify potential disease risks to native Galapagos species indicated that West Nile Virus is a significant new threat. The team developed a risk analysis framework to assess pathways for the potential introduction of the mosquito transmitted virus to the islands. The research showed that mosquitoes hitching a ride on airliners carrying tourists to the islands was the biggest risk for introducing the virus, and recommended a suite of measures to reduce the chance of the virus arriving via this route.

Implementation of biosecurity measures

Following the identification of the potential threat, Galapagos stakeholders began lobbying the Ecuadorian government and airlines to reflect the teams’ recommendations in government policy and legislation. This led to new national legislation on biosecurity and the implementation of new mitigation measures, including disinsection treatments on all aircraft flying to Galapagos, bans on direct international flights to Galapagos and restrictions on the point of origin for all flights.

The team supported a lobbying and technical consultation for the uptake of the mitigation measures by Ecuador’s three major airlines, resulting in practice changes (e.g. the adoption of a World Health Organisation approved disinsection treatment) and the establishment of compliance and monitoring procedures. The teams’ work also contributed to the adoption of ‘insect zappers’ on tourist boats to reduce accidental transport of insects between islands.

An emergency response plan for the West Nile Virus, developed by the team, has been adopted as the official response procedure, influencing the practice of all Galapagos management institutions and potentially the whole population in the event of the virus being detected.

Wider recognition of disease threats

The teams’ work was part of the body of evidence was recognised by the Ecuadorian authorities and international community. In 2007 UNESCO placed the Galapagos on the ‘List of World Heritage Sites in Danger’ and the Ecuadorian government invested of millions of dollars in new biosecurity infrastructure and personnel. This combination of measures led to Galapagos being removed from the UNESCO at risk register in 2011.

Funding: DEFRA