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Galápagos conservation organization may go bankrupt over souvenirs

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The Charles Darwin Foundation may shutter after 50 years of conservation work

The Charles Darwin Foundation, a 50-year-old conservation organization on the Galápagos Islands, faces an uncertain future. Though the Ecuadorean government calls the foundation "essential," the government hasn't provided the organization with the money it needs to survive to 2015, and it hasn't re-opened a souvenir shop that brought the CDF sorely needed revenue. The foundation must raise $1 million before the end of 2014 or it will be bankrupt.

The CDF has helped prevent the extinction of the iconic Galápagos giant tortoises, after they were threatened by rats. It's helped control invasive species, like goats, which threaten to wreak havoc to the islands' unique ecosystems. It serves as a conduit for foreign scientists who study the islands. But since the local government ordered the foundation to shutter its gift shop, the organization may become extinct itself.

The organization has been financially shaky for yearsThe Galápagos Islands famously inspired Darwin's masterpiece on evolution, On the Origin of the Species. While observing animals, he found a group of similar finches that varied from island to island; each species was uniquely adapted to its environment. These discoveries inspired his theory of natural selection. The CDF, founded in Belgium and named for the naturalist, works closely with Galápagos National Park to conserve the islands. It monitors 120 species on the island, has tagged 250 local sharks to study, and hand-rears the critically endangered mangrove finches, of which there are only 60 to 80 birds left.

The organization has been financially shaky for years, according to a report in Science. To try to shore up its precarious finances, the CDF opened a gift shop in the town of Puerto Ayora in February. In July, local officials ordered the shop be shuttered, as other storeowners had complained it cut into their business. The shop's closure has deprived the foundation of $8,000 a week, according to a report in Nature. If the shop doesn't reopen this year, the losses may total $200,000. What's more, the closure has scared away donors.

The CDF is more than two months late with salaries"The closure of the store basically ruined our 2014 budget," CDF president Dennis Geist told Nature. "We have no endowment. We don’t even have any reserve funds. The closing of the Darwin station is a very realistic possibility right now." The CDF is more than two months late with salaries, executive director Swen Lorenz said.

Yesterday, the CDF released a statement from the director of Galápagos National Park and several other Ecuadorian government entities endorsing the foundation's work. The government and the CDF have formed a working group to create plans for 2016 and beyond. The store has not reopened. In the meantime, the CDF has begun an online fundraising drive; Geist and Lorenz, meanwhile, are hoping for a large donor to help keep the foundation's doors open, they told Science.