Baltra Land Iguanas

January 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

Land Iguana at the Baltra Airport

The story of the Baltra Land Iguanas is one that illustrates the effect both good and bad humans have had on the Galapagos wildlife population over the years.

Up until the early part of the 20th century Baltra was considered “Iguana Headquarters”.  There were hundreds of land iguanas living on the island of Baltra.  Located near the center of the Galapagos Islands just north of Santa Cruz Island, Baltra is a small and relatively flat island with little vegetation other than the prickly pear cactus, a staple in the land iguana diet.

In the early 1930’s the Hancock-Pacific Galapagos Expedition made several voyages to the Galapagos.  Funded by Allan Hancock a renaissance man of the time. Hancock was considered a sea captain, oilman, explorer, developer, banker, aviator, scientist, businessman, farmer, railroad engineer, musician and philanthropist.  More over Hancock was a man of great wealth and connections.  For his expeditions to the Galapagos Hancock put together a group of experts including Waldo Schmitt (of the Smithsonian Institution) who would also accompany FDR during his 1938 fishing trip to Galapagos.

Waldo Schmitt with a Baltra Land Iguana c 1934

During their voyages the Hancock Expedition collected and cataloged a number of new species of wildlife from the Galapagos.  These species were subsequently brought back to the United States and donated to some of the country’s finest institutions including the Smithsonian Museum, the California Academy of Sciences, the San Diego Zoological Gardens, and the Steinhart Aquarium.

In January 1934 the Hancock Expedition visited Baltra Island.  While there the expedition collected approximately 15 land iguanas to be transported back for the San Diego Zoo.  During the time on the island, several scientists noticed that many of the land iguanas seemed to be suffering from starvation.

Two days later the Expedition visited North Seymour.  North Seymour and Baltra (South Seymour) are located relatively close together and the conditions on both islands are similar. However the expedition members noted North Seymour had more vegetation and therefore they felt it was a more favorable environment for the iguanas.  Not seeing any reason why North Seymour did not have its own population of land iguanas, the group decided to help save the starving iguanas.

The Hancock Galapagos Expedition transporting Baltra Iguanas to North Seymour

They returned to Baltra to capture additional iguanas and relocated them to North Seymour.  Normally this would be considered a disastrous event as land iguanas were not native to North Seymour and thus became an introduced species to the island.  As with any introduced species it has the potential to change the natural habitat and affect the flora and fauna naturally found on the island.  Over time the actions of the Hancock Expedition would prove to be quite fortunate.

By the end of the 1930’s hostilities grew all over the world and World War II would begin.  In 1943 a military base was established in Baltra. Shortly after the end of the war land iguanas became extinct on that island.  The reason for the extinction has been speculated for many years.  Early history books and many in Galapagos have blamed the military personnel stationed on Baltra for killing the iguanas for sport.  That these same military people through deliberate acts would led to the extinction of the Baltra Iguanas.

According to John Peck who was stationed with the Navy on Baltra during WWII “We could have free range of the Navy side and we could explore the area, but could not to molest the wildlife”.

Records show there were orders that came down from the military according to Wetmore’s memorandum of December 9, 1942 “you take appropriate action to prevent any unnecessary molestation of the wildlife in the Galapagos Archipelago and to prohibit the introduction of domestic animals that prey on the native fauna”

It seems highly unlikely that a group of young men under direct orders not to harm the native wildlife would be shooting the iguanas for fun.

Taking this into consideration leaves a mystery as to why would an island, which was considered “Iguana Headquarters” in the early 1930’s see the Iguana become extinct in a period of 20 years.

At a reunion of the 29th Bombardment Squadron in 1989 a small survey was taken regarding the iguanas.  “Do you have any first or second hand accounts of hunting iguanas or eating them?” The respondents unanimous stated “NO”.

John Peck describes, “We had a pet iguanas called IT as the sex was unknown.  It would sleep on the table in the medical laboratory, the medical techs would feed it vegetables greens i.e. lettuce and carrot tops.  IT was very gentle and enjoyed all the care given to the animal.  We would take IT to other places on the base and many of the personnel would pet and feed IT.” 

US Military Personell with Baltra Land Iguana

It seems that from what John Peck has stated and the survey of the 29th Bombardment Squadron that the military personnel were not killing iguanas.  As a group they seemed genuinely found of the iguanas and made many of the iguanas into pets.

The theory that the military personnel were responsible for the decline of the Baltra iguana population through a deliberate act seems unlikely.  By doing some research of the events of the events over these years there seems a more likely scenario for what actually occurred.

As we mentioned in an earlier blog the first military personnel were sent to Baltra less than a week after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Construction of the base was in effect in March 1943.  Military documents from the SeaBees (the construction battalion who built navy bases all over the world) show it was Ecuadorian contractors who began the construction of the Baltra Base in the early portion of 1943.  These contractors used local sand and loose soil in the construction of the concrete they used to pour the foundations of buildings, the dock and airport.  When the SeaBee’s arrived in Baltra in October of 1943 to complete the job and imported all materials needed to finish the construction and used no native materials in their building of the base.

Early military correspondence regarding the base includes a report from Wetmore in 1942. “We have report of native laborers engaged in various work on the islands killing iguanas for their skins.  This was stop by one of the officers but may begin again at any time”

While the native labors seem to have been deliberately killing land iguanas for their skins it was the Ecuadorian Contractors unintentional acts that proved far more costly to the iguanas.

In the 2989 survey of the 29th squadron members were asked “Do you have any recollection of the iguana population when you arrived?  When you left? While you where there did the population increase/decrease/remain stable?  Did you see any young iguanas?”

All of the respondents stated they remember iguanas when they arrived, while they were there, and when they left.  However none remembered ever seeing any young iguanas.  Why suddenly on an island with a healthy iguana population would suddenly there be no baby iguanas?

Iguanas lay their eggs in sand or loose soils, the same materials that the local contractors excavated to build the new base.  In using the local sands and loose soils the early contractors would have upset the iguana nesting sites and in affect caused the population of young iguanas to decline.

When combining the decline in new iguanas with other factor from the time the reason for extinction of the Baltra Iguanas seems quite clear. For much of the 1940’s the US military occupied Baltra.  During this time iguanas and goats were both left to have free range of the island.

The earlier instruction to rid the islands of introduced domestic animals seemed to reach the Galapagos as not to bother any of the animals as evident from a memorandum from Harmon in 1946

“The large number of native goats, protected by Executive Order, make a continuous practice of upsetting garbage and trash cans.  They are a great annoyance and menace to sanction.  Initiate request… for authority to round them up and transport them either to Little Seymour (Seymour North) or to Santa Cruz”

Feral goats during WWII on Baltra

The US Military left Baltra in 1948 and five years later in 1953 land iguanas were extinct on Baltra.  Why did the Baltra Land Iguanas become extinct?

It was not because the military personnel were not shooting the iguanas for sport or eating the iguanas.

The reason for the extinction is early contractors upset the nesting grounds and no new iguanas were born.  The number of plants available as food for the iguanas was scarce at the time of the Hancock Expedition in the 1930’s and when the population of goats was allowed to grow the competition for food may have put further stain on the scarce food supply.  When competing for food between goats and iguanas the goats always win.

Lastly as we know from the land iguanas on South Plaza, iguanas can relate people to food and remember this correlation.  On Plazas early passengers would bring oranges ashore, quickly the iguanas related visitor to an easy supply.  The lazy iguanas began hopping into the laps of visitors begging for food. John Heck told us that the military personnel would feed the iguanas lettuce, carrot tops and other produce causing the iguanas to become accustom to people and relating people to an easy food sources.

As mentioned above the Wetmore memorandum of 1942 native laborers were killing iguanas for the skins.  At the time the military left the island the iguanas found on Baltra would have been far easier to capture as they now related people to food so anyone wanting to capture an iguana would find it an easy job.

A combination of these factors would account for what happened to the iguanas.  The iguanas disappeared from Baltra as a consequence of the coming into contact with humans.  It was ignorance of the consequences of their actions by the people who came into contact with the iguanas led to their deaths rather than any deliberate malicious act.

Land Iguana eating a prickly pear cactus pad on Baltra

All of this would be a terribly sad story of a species that is now extinct if it hadn’t been for the decision made by the Hancock-Galapagos Pacific Expedition in January 1934.  By moving iguanas to North Seymour on this voyage and the proceeding voyage the members of the Hancock Expedition consequently saved the Baltra Land Iguanas from extinction.  In the 1980’s the Galapagos National Park captured iguanas on North Seymour and brought them to the Charles Darwin Research Station where they were bred.  In the 1990’s these land iguanas were reintroduced to Baltra the island where they originated.  Today while there are no longer goats on Baltra, there is still a military base, an airport and a healthy population of land iguanas.

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