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

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.

The Darwin Foundation started working with the ICF about a year ago, both as a legal and financial conduit of donations from the United States, and as a means of reaching a larger pool of potential donors, Lorenz said.

The ICF’s mission is to expand American giving to international organizations, with a focus on Mexico and Latin America, said Kiy.

The ICF disburses some $5 million in grants each year, primarily in the areas of environment and conservation, health and education.

The ICF checks out grant recipients to make sure they are using donated funds appropriately, and also serves as a vehicle to allow U.S. donors to make tax-deductible contributions to foreign nonprofits, Kiy said. The organization is an intermediary that links donors with worthy overseas organizations, he said.

Among its projects, said Kiy, is helping to preserve hundreds of thousands of acres of land surrounding San Ignacio Lagoon on the Sea of Cortez in Baja, Mexico, the birthing grounds of the California gray whale; providing scholarships to assist schoolchildren in Mexico; and reducing the spread of tuberculosis along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We’re about connecting people in communities to make a difference,” Kiy said.

Kiy said his work has also had a positive impact on his family, including wife Monica and sons Derek and Daniel, both students at Canyon Crest Academy. He has brought his children with him on trips to visit various nonprofits, including an expedition to an island off the coast of Ensenada, where researchers were studying great white sharks. Kiy and his younger son even went down into a shark cage to meet the research subjects first-hand.

“I feel very honored and blessed to work with so many amazing nonprofits and community donors around the world,” Kiy said.

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