Carmel Valley resident's foundation helps secure grant to save endangered bird species in the Galapagos Islands

Richard Kiy, president and CEO of International Community Foundation. Courtesy photo
Richard Kiy, president and CEO of International Community Foundation. Courtesy photo

By Joe Tash

If scientists are able to save endangered bird species in the Galapagos Islands from extinction, a charitable foundation with ties to Carmel Valley will deserve a share of the credit.

The International Community Foundation recently announced that a $600,000, two-year grant was awarded to the Charles Darwin Foundation, a private, nonprofit conservation organization based in the Galapagos Islands, to conduct research aimed at protecting native birds from threats posed by invasive, non-native species.

The ICF, which is headed by Carmel Valley resident Richard Kiy and based in National City, worked with the Darwin Foundation to secure the grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

The money will allow scientists in the Galapagos and at U.S. universities to study the impacts of Philornis downsi, a non-native fly, on the unique bird species found in the Galapagos archipelago, a chain of islands some 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador in South America.  The islands were a primary source of inspiration for naturalist Charles Darwin as he formulated his theories of evolution in the ground-breaking work, “On The Origin of Species.”

“The more we can do to save this World Heritage bio-diversity site… and protects its flora and fauna, the better,” said Kiy, president and CEO of the ICF, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2014.

At least five small land bird species in the islands are facing extinction, with one species, the mangrove finch, down to only 80 individuals, according to the Darwin Foundation.  The invasive fly species lays its eggs in the finches’ nests, where the larvae attack nestlings and suck their blood, often causing their death, said Swen Lorenz, executive director of the Darwin Foundation.

In a telephone interview from his office at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, Lorenz said no bird species unique to the Galapagos has ever gone extinct.  But land bird populations have declined significantly in recent years.

“Very fundamentally, the grant is aimed at helping us understand the factors that are causing the decline in land birds in the Galapagos,” Lorenz said.

Researchers at a number of institutions, including the San Diego Zoo, will help develop techniques to protect young birds from parasites such as the invasive fly species.  For example, scientists are studying the use of highly selective natural enemies to suppress the fly, and methods of disrupting fly mating patterns.

The $600,000 grant represents a large sum to the Darwin Foundation, which runs on an annual budget of about $3 million generated by donations, Lorenz said.

“This is a very significant grant for us,” he said.

Some 180,000 tourists visit the islands each year, in addition to their permanent population of about 25,000 residents, Lorenz said.  While tourism supports research and conservation efforts, it also poses problems, such as invasive plant and animal species hitching rides on supply ships and airplanes.

California ranks fifth among U.S. states in terms of the number of residents who travel to the Galapagos each year.  “Do come and visit Galapagos,” Lorenz said, but urged visitors to book their trips with companies certified for using sustainable practices such as renewable energy and recycling.

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