Founded in 1959, the Charles Darwin Foundation is dedicated to the preservation and conservation of the Galapagos Islands and the animals and plants that live there. They have many projects going on at any given time, and may include programs such as removal of introduced species, monitoring the health of certain animal or plant populations, helping set fishing limits and more. The foundation relies on donations to support their activities. It is named for Charles Darwin, the famed British naturalist who visited the islands in 1835 aboard the HMS Beagle. He later made the Islands famous by using the Galapagos finches to illustrate his Theory of Evolution.
The foundation has its headquarters at the visitor-friendly Charles Darwin Research Station, located near Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. There you will find administrative offices and laboratories for the scientists (usually off-limits to visitors) but also several educational exhibits and displays, such as shells from different tortoise species, a display concerning introduced species and the harm they can do, etc.
Most visitors to the Research Station have come to see a very special individual: Lonesome George, the last remaining Pinta Island giant tortoise. For years, it was believed that the Pinta Island subspecies of giant tortoise was extinct. In 1971, however, one lone survivor was found. Christened "Lonesome George," he was quickly taken to the research station, where he could be protected while a mate was found. To date, no mate has been found, although he does share a pen with two "girlfriends" of the Wolf Volcano subspecies. Recently, the two females laid eggs and it is hoped (and assumed) that George is the father. Scientists are optimistic: even a Pinta Island hybrid would mean that George's genes have survived.
There is much more to see at the station than just Lonesome George. The foundation has supported a program which raises young giant tortoises and then releases them into the wild, and it is possible to see some of the small turtles in their pens. This program is important because the tortoises are most vulnerable when they are little, as introduced species (particularly ants and rats, but also cats and dogs) can prey on them before their shells get too large and their skin gets too thick. This program is run in conjunction with the Galapagos Park Service. Since 1970, more than 2,000 tortoises have been hatched, raised and released.
There are several large tortoises in the pens, and it is possible to walk down and take your photo with them. Your guide will tell you when it is okay to do so. The Station is also home to a population of land iguanas, there for study and protection.
2009 will be a very special year at the Charles Darwin Research Station, as it marks Charles Darwin's 200th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the foundation itself. It also marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species. To celebrate, the foundation is hosting a symposium and conferences: they hope to bring the problems facing Galapagos to a worldwide audience.