Swen Lorenz, Executive Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation

Swen Lorenz, Executive Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation

Recently, we had the chance to catch up with Swen Lorenz, the Executive Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), which operates the Charles Darwin Research Station on the island of Santa Cruz, about his organization’s work, why the Galapagos Islands matter, and what it’s like living in paradise.

About Galapagos: What is the Charles Darwin Foundation and why do you think it’s important?

Swen Lorenz: The Charles Darwin Foundation is the scientific advisor to the Government of Ecuador, when it comes to the conservation of the Galapagos Islands. To be successful in conservation, it is important to base your actions and decisions on sound scientific evidence. Operating the Charles Darwin Research Station in Santa Cruz Island, we have more than 150 scientists working for us and with us, to create the information and the knowledge necessary to protect this UNESCO World Heritage Site. CDF has been holding that role since 1959, with all the work being privately funded through donations from around the world. No other private organization has a comparable role, no other private organization has been in Galapagos for so long. The organization has had a crucial role in preserving the Galapagos, and its effects can literally be seen in all parts of the archipelago, both in the inhabited part as well as the uninhabited part.

About Galapagos: The CDF operates the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, which is one of the top visitor sites on the island of Santa Cruz. It sounds like you’ve been doing a lot to improve the quality of visitor experience there. What are some of the things you’ve been doing and what do you hope that visitors get out of the experience of visiting the station?

Swen Lorenz: The visitor site has been lacking investment, and we recently carried out Phase 1 of a multi-phase program for improving the site. The CDF invested $700,000 to redevelop its souvenir shop, open a new cafeteria, create a trail for visitors to walk around the entire research station and have plenty of interpretation material to look at, and to install a statue of Darwin as a young man. All of these improvements are currently in their final phase.

I would like visitors to be able to understand what we do, how we do it, why it’s important, and how it’s funded. But most importantly, we want to share with them the excitement of our work! Many visitors are keen to learn more about how Galapagos has been able to remain as the world’s most pristine tropical archipelago. We are telling that story.

Further investments are planned, and we are currently discussing this with the Government of Ecuador. The CDF has very ambitious plans in the pipeline.

Researcher measuring an invasive Quinine tree

A researcher measures an invasive Quinine tree in the Galapagos. Courtesy of the Charles Darwin Foundation


About Galapagos: Since we’re friends on Facebook, I notice that you spend a lot of your time traveling around the world educating people about the CDF and trying to drum up support for the organization’s work. With so many problems in the world and issues that need to be addressed – environmental and otherwise – is it difficult to convince people to financially support the CDF and Galapagos conservation in general?

Swen Lorenz: We are in some ways very lucky. The Galapagos immediately arouse an audience’s attention. The world’s public is interested in Galapagos. We don’t have to explain what the islands are about or why it is necessary to work to preserve them.

However, we also face difficulties. There is, after all, huge competition between so many different areas in the world that all are worthy of donor support in some way. Also, Galapagos is remote and people who haven’t visited yet are unlikely to support us. That’s not even to mention that within charitable giving, conservation remains a niche. The biggest chunk of charitable giving worldwide goes to religious causes and education.

The time I invest to work with media around the world and to address audiences is paying off, but it’s always a long-term investment if you pursue such activities and it takes time for support to materialize. E.g., I just signed a $1.2m donation from someone with whom we have been building a relationship, following an initial meeting in a cafe in Amsterdam, for 3 years.

Native fauna restoration in the Galapagos

Restoration of native fauna is just one of the many projects the CDF is involved in. Courtesy of the Charles Darwin Foundation.

About Galapagos: Why should someone who will lives on the other side of the world and who may never have the opportunity to visit the Galapagos care about what happens there?  

Swen Lorenz: Plain and simple. If we cannot save Galapagos, then it’s unlikely we can save this planet. The work we are doing here is highly symbolic for what’s happening elsewhere on the planet. Galapagos can, and will, set a model and a trend indicator for what will happen on the rest of the planet.

About Galapagos: What, in your mind, are the biggest conservation challenges in the Galapagos and how is the CDF working to address them?

Swen Lorenz: The number one threat to the islands are invasive species. The CDF invested in 2000 to help get a quarantine system established. The Government has taken up this initiative and there is now a dedicated Government authority in charge of quarantine, e.g. one conservationist closely affiliated with us helped to get a system into place to have planes sprayed to kill insects ahead of landing in Galapagos. We are advising the authorities how to improve their quarantine system further. And, crucially, where dangerous invasive species are already on the islands, we are working on solutions how to eradicate or at least control them. One of the acute threats is an invasive botfly that is killing off the landbird population, including the Darwin Finches. We are hot on the heels of finding a solution for this problem. This also includes breeding and hand-rearing of certain bird species. On a more abstract level, we are working to create a knowledge management system for the islands. This involves fostering a “knowledge culture” which facilitates access to information, education, and heightened community engagement. We are also working with Google Earth to continue the yearly acquisition of imagery from Galapagos. This partnership will help us to grow the citizen science program and promote CDF-based scientific research to a world-wide audience.

A scientists collects invertebrate species in the Galapagos Islands

A scientists collects invertebrate species in the Galapagos Islands. Courtesy of the Charles Darwin Foundation.

About Galapagos: The Galapagos Islands get a fair amount of press these days, and sometimes it’s not positive. One common theme that gets picked up on fairly often is that tourism is hurting the islands or even that the islands are being over run by tourists. What is your take on tourism in the Galapagos? What role does tourism play in conservation and scientific research? How would you like to see the tourism industry evolve over the next decade or two?

Swen Lorenz: For a start, it was the great naturalist and TV presenter, Sir David Attenborough, who said that without tourism, the Galapagos wouldn’t even exist anymore. Tourism provides a powerful incentive to preserve these islands.

That said, tourism does of course have its negative aspects. Whereas cruise ship based tourism is heavily regulated and very sophisticated in its approach to be low impact, there has been rapid and not sufficiently regulated growth in land-based tourism. There are many, many questions that need to be looked into. The carrying capacity of individual sites that have seen huge growth in visitor numbers. The ability of the authorities to effectively run quarantine systems. Increasing visitor numbers bring additional challenges.

I would like to see the tourism industry evolve in a way that sees yet stronger engagement of Galapagos visitors, with regards to getting their support for funding conservation solutions. The absolute numbers required for Galapagos in terms of funding are not that high. If a larger number of visitors makes a contribution, be that to CDF or other entities, then we can work to find suitable solutions to the islands’ problems.

Underwater research in the Galapagos Islands.

The CDF’s work includes research above and below the ocean’s surface. Courtesy of the Charles Darwin Foundation.

About Galapagos: What are you most optimistic about in terms of the future of the Galapagos? What are you most pessimistic about?

Swen Lorenz: I am excited about the next generation of island residents rising through the ranks of local institutions. This young generation is much more aware of the unique habitat they are living in, and they are keen to protect it. There is a sea-change underway in terms of how influential residents feel about the islands.

What I am most pessimistic about are changes caused to the islands’ eco-system through climate change. This is nothing we can do anything about, at least not in a direct way. We might lose the penguins, we might lose the blue footed boobies. We are entering unchartered territory. What do you do if the boobies are not breeding anymore because the sardines are not coming to their feedback grounds anymore? This is the depressing part of the work, however, we also have yet to establish really clear scientific evidence about all this.

A scientist studying giant tortoises in the Galapagos Islands

A scientists conducting research for giant tortoise conservation in the Galapagos Islands. Courtesy of the Charles Darwin Foundation.

About Galapagos: What is the most important or surprising thing you’ve learned in your role as the ED of the CDF?

Swen Lorenz: The fact that in the world of NGOs and nonprofits, the management problems are essentially the same as in the world of private enterprise. It’s all about getting effective management into place, then the rest follows.

About Galapagos: What is it like to live in the Galapagos? Was it a tough adjustment, given the fact that it sounds like you’ve spent a lot of time living in big cities in Europe?

Swen Lorenz: Curiously, Galapagos is a real meeting place of the world. It’s really quite incredible who turns up on my doorstep. We have Formula One stars, Nobel Prize winners, movie celebrities, authors, philanthropists, entrepreneurs and all sorts of other people all coming to Galapagos. Some of them end up on my doorstep. My social life is as interesting as it was in London or New York. The weather is better and I regularly have animals walk into my office. So, I really have nothing to complain about!