Protecting raptors abroad
April 24, 2024
Dr. Julia Ponder
A woman wearing a hat and sunglasses holds a hawk with gloved hands

Galápagos. The word alone is magical to scientists, biologists, and conservationists. Having the opportunity to contribute to on-the-ground conservation in Galápagos with almost immediate and tangible impact has been one of the greatest highlights of my professional career.

The Raptor Center (TRC) was invited to Galápagos in 2011 during a time of urgent need to protect the Galápagos hawk population as a result of a project to eradicate invasive rats on several islands. Invasive rodents are one of the leading causes of extinctions on islands, bearing an inordinate portion of contemporary extinctions (80 percent of all extinctions since 1500). Removing invasive rodents on islands is one of the most impactful conservation actions to protect these unique ecosystems, many of which are home to species found nowhere else in the world.

Two women drawing blood from a hawk
Dr. Julia Ponder and Franny Cunninghame taking a blood sample to assess the health of one of the Galapagos hawks
managed in captivity. | Photo courtesy of Julia Ponder

The issue, however, is raptors and other endemic species are at risk of eating the grain-based bait used or a dead/dying rodent with the poison in its system during the eradication. The Raptor Center’s initial work involved sharing our expertise in captive management of raptors, and, over time,
our involvement and contributions became broader and deeper. It was challenging both mentally and  physically. It was humbling in times when our best attempts had unfortunate outcomes. It was eye-opening as some hawks were lost due to poison exposure through previously unrecognized paths.

Three people building a temporary enclosure
Construction of the temporary enclosures on Pinzon in 2012. | Photo courtesy of Julia Ponder

The reward for this hard work was, and remains, invaluable. Our work was crucial to the overall eradication projects, resulting in ecological recovery as well as the recovery of species once thought lost to the world.

The work in Galápagos hit on all aspects of TRC’s mission—providing service and support to conservation, creating new knowledge through research, and training future generations of veterinarians working in conservation.