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Aerial view of the Charles Darwin Foundation's research station in the Galápagos.

Aerial view of the Charles Darwin Foundation's research station in the Galápagos.

Charles Darwin Foundation

Galápagos research center may shut down

A 50-year-old conservation organization dedicated to preserving the biodiversity hotspot that inspired Charles Darwin is about to fall off a financial cliff and could close before the end of the year.

The Charles Darwin Foundation, based in Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands, has helped control goats, blackberries, and other invasive species while working to restore populations of endangered species, notably giant tortoises and mangrove finches. It also helps review applications to the Galápagos National Park from researchers and handles logistics for the approved projects.

Over the decades, however, it has struggled to make ends meet, and on Monday its general assembly may decide to shut its doors for lack of funding. “Our donors are generous when it comes to science but not in maintaining the institution,” explains Dennis Geist, a volcanologist at the University of Idaho in Moscow and chair of the foundation’s board of directors. “It has been in a precarious financial position for many, many years,” adds board member Judy Diamond, an ethologist and science educator of the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln.

One problem for the $3-million-a-year foundation is supporting a growth spike that occurred a decade ago, say Peter and Rosemary Grant, Princeton University evolutionary biologists who have spent their careers studying Darwin’s finches there. Its research station has lived hand to mouth, Geist says, and over time debts built up.

Two potential solutions involved selling off parcels of land it owned and operating a gift shop for the 150,000 tourists who visit the Galápagos each year. The store “was the cornerstone of a long-term plan to create an income-generating facility that would provide ongoing support,” Diamond says, with revenue from the land sales paying off debt and providing operating expenses. Several parcels were sold, although one large deal fell through at the last minute.

“We would have survived if that had been the only problem,” Geist says. But it wasn’t.

The store, which opened in February, was on track to earn $400,000 annually. But the local Puerto Ayora authorities shut it down in July, presumably after local shop owners complained about the competition. The loss of income means no money for Internet service, electricity, and the salaries of the accounting department, Geist says.

Swen Lorenz, the foundation’s executive director, believes that the national government should rescue the organization, but “I’m worried about the time it is taking.” Geist and Lorenz are hoping for a bailout from the foundation’s two largest supporters, the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, based in New York City, and the Galapagos Conservancy, based in Fairfax, Virginia. But so far neither has committed itself to additional contributions. In May, the Helmsley Trust awarded a 3-year, $2 million grant for conservation. And the Galapagos Conservancy contributes more than $500,000 per year.

The conservancy was actually formed about 20 years ago when the foundation wanted to invest endowment funds it had acquired. For several years almost all the money raised by the conservancy and a parallel organization called the Galapagos Conservation Trust in the United Kingdom went toward the foundation. But now, only about 30% does, Geist says. “They give us money when they want to” and donate the rest to other causes.

Nicholas Mark Collins, chair of the board of the Galapagos Conservation Trust in London, says that the organization is more comfortable funding specific research projects. Having the foundation close “would be a very serious matter that will be regretted worldwide,” he said, but “we’re not sitting on a pile of money that we can pass along.”

Foundation officials haven’t given up, launching a Web fundraising campaign and membership drive that would allow the organization to limp along into next year. If it doesn’t succeed, much would be lost. The foundation has a captive breeding program for mangrove finches that has recently produced offspring. It’s also home to the islands’ specimen collections and the archive of visiting scientists.

“It could all vanish,” Lorenz says. Board member William Sutherland, a conservation biologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, thinks that result “would clearly be a disaster for both fundamental research and conservation.”