Goat Hunting in the Galapagos Islands

Eric Gayer and Galapagos goatPhotos by Joseph B. Treaster

Dogs, Machetes And a big, wide net

We met the goat hunter on his land in the highlands of the Galapagos Islands. He was short and wiry, wearing a faded blue shirt, khaki cargo shorts and well-worn sandals. He had just come back from a hunt. Sometimes, he said, he kills as many as 400 goats in a day. This time he had killed 11 goats.

Eduardo Eduardo Villema Barrera, who is 50 years old, said he has been hunting goats since he first learned to walk. He grew up in the Galapagos and his dad taught him the business. He goes looking for goats three or four times a week with a team of dogs, two teenage helpers, machetes and a big, nylon mesh net.

Hunting goats in the Galapagos was once fairly easy. But nearly 20 years ago the government intervened with an eradication program called Project Isabella. The wild goat herds in the Galapagos had grown to an estimated 250,000 and were hurting the giant Galapagos tortoises that have become a symbol of the islands. The goats ate what the tortoises ate: grass, scrub brush, cacti and the leaves of papaya trees. There wasn’t much left for the tortoises to eat and they were dying off. Iguanas were also suffering. And experts say some of the native plants were being wiped out.

The goats were brought to the Galapagos by whalers, fishermen, sailors and others as food and are regarded by scientists as an invasive species. By 1997 they were upsetting the ecosystem and the authorities felt that eventually tourism, the biggest business in the Galapagos, could be harmed. Dr. Ken Collins, a marine scientist at the University of South Hampton in South Hampton, England, has studied goats and other invasive mammals in the Galapagos. “The Galapagos are the land of reptiles and birds, not of mammals,” he told Galapagos Digital, an online news website. “All the mammals we’ve introduced here have caused huge problems- not just goats but rats, cats, pigs and donkeys.”

The government has focused on goats. It spent $10 million, provided by private donors and the United Nations, in Project Isabella, which ran nine years from 1997 to 2006. Tens of thousands of goats were killed. Experts estimate that 40,000 to 50,000 goats are now roaming the islands. The government is no longer hunting goats, but about 40 private Galapagos hunters, like Barrera, make their living by killing goats and selling the meat.

In Project Isabella the government hired goat hunters from New Zealand to train park wardens to track and shoot goats and they killed goats themselves on ground patrols and with the help of helicopters. They flew low over rough, otherwise unreachable terrain armed with .223 caliber AR-15 rifles, the civilian version of the United States Army’s M-16, and picked off the animals.

Eric Gayer

The government went after the hardest t to find goats with live decoys that were given sex hormones to produce alluring odors. They fitted the goats with Global Positioning Satellite tracking gear and released them into the wild. The goats, that were called Judas goats, attracted other goats and government hunters moved in with their guns.

The first step for Barrera in a goat hunt is to go into the bush and string up between two trees, a 50- foot – long black nylon net that looks something like the net on a tennis court except that it is a little wider. Then he releases his especially trained dogs to sniff out the goats. With the help of his two teenage assistants, the dogs chase the goats into the net. When the goats are in the net, the teenagers pull it away from the trees and wrap it around the goats in a kind of nylon corral. Then Barrera and the teenagers go at the goats with machetes. They skin the goats and carry out the carcasses on their backs, four or five at a time. They sell the meat for $1.40 a pound to middlemen who ship it to the mainland.

It may not be as easy to hunt goats as it used to be, Barrera said, but he still makes a decent living. He has built a nice homestead on a wooded hill in the highlands of Santa Cruz. He raises chickens and dogs and he hunts when he likes. #

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