Counterinsurgency: The Great Goat War

On Isabela Island, the feral goat used to be public enemy No. 1. No creature has done more to sully the pristine ecology of the biggest island of the Galápagos. First introduced by whalers back in the 1700s, a handful of goats migrated over a wide expanse of nearly impassable lava terrain to the northern end of Isabela in the mid-1980s, and by 2000 some 120,000 were tearing up the landscape. The goats overgraze on the same native plants that support the giant tortoise and other species, turning forests into virtual deserts. As late as the '80s, the tortoises, which live as long as 200 years, were endangered and well on the path to extinction.

The goat is now gone. The private Charles Darwin Foundation, which set out to exterminate the goat in 1998, announced last July that it had succeeded completely. The foundation has been battling invasive species on the islands since 1959, but the removal of the goats from Isabela is its greatest victory. "Almost nobody thought we could do it. Imagine trying to find every goat in an area the size of Rhode Island," says Felipe Cruz, a native of the Galápagos who directed the project. "What we have achieved has not been done anywhere in the world."

It was a military-style campaign. With about $10 million in financing from the United Nations and private donors, the foundation imported 500,000 rounds of ammunition, 40 rifles and two helicopters. It trained and equipped up to 100 local residents with GIS (Geographic Information System) and GPS (Global Positioning System) devices. First, a test run on neighboring Santiago and Pinta islands cleared those islands of goats, pigs and other vertebrate invasive species. That took six years, and only then did the operation move to Isabela, a roadless, scrappy lava terrain occupied by five of the world's widest volcanoes.

The first wave of attack entailed rapid fire from helicopters with sharpshooters wielding .223-caliber semiautomatic rifles. Hunters with dogs took on the rest of the job. Kills were marked by GPS coordinates on satellite images, in order to track the likely location of remaining goats. The project ultimately averaged 1.4 bullets for every dead goat. "No army would ever dream of being that efficient," says Karl Campbell, field director for the Isabela Project.

In the final stages, so-called Judas goats were fitted with radio transmitters to lead hunters to the last survivors. Chosen for sexual aggressiveness so they would search out partners, the Judas goats were sterilized to prevent them from procreating, and in some cases injected with hormones to keep up their sex drives. Jeffrey McNeely, chief scientist for the World Conservation Union, says the project was amazingly successful, yet "the Galápagos are far from secure." Not only are there still more than 295 invasive species left in the Galápagos--from pigs to cats, dogs, rats, mice and 11 different kinds of cockroaches--but, warns McNeely, "numerous other species are lurking [on] every boat that arrives on the Islands, requiring eternal vigilance."