Galápagos Islands: remarkable yet preoccupying

We enjoyed last Christmas on the Galapagos Islands, giving ourselves the soulful gift of connecting with nature. We felt incredibly blessed to be in such a unique place on this remarkable planet of ours as animals approached us unguarded, unafraid of humans and as curious about us as we were of them. We wondered at the unique giant tortoises, tame sea lions and abundant bird life.

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Our visit was bitter sweet though, as we noticed the effects of tourism and the swell in population on the islands. We wondered if we should really be there, contributing in that way. Locals profess that tourism funds conservation and research but I couldn’t help feel that there would be greater conservation if we didn’t go there at all. My heart felt burdened as I contemplated the magnitude of destruction humans have unleashed on this planet, even in protected areas like this.

People flock to these islands because they view them as largely untouched… how ironic…

I couldn’t ignore the quiet sadness chaperoning our happiness, our highs and our fun during our visit. All of our wonderful experiences were thanks to tourism (after all, that’s the only way to even get there) but all of the extinctions and destruction are also related to humans and tourism. Weren’t we contributing to this problem simply by visiting?

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Tourism is relatively recent there and already the impact has been massive. The Galápagos became a national park in 1959 and tourism started in the 1960s. In 1959 approximately 1 000 to 2 000 people called the islands their home but by 1972 a census in the archipelago recorded a population of 3 488. By the 1980s this number had risen to more than 15 000 people and in 2010 there were 25 124 people in the Galápagos. Now, I’ve read that they estimate the population at 40 000! In the sixties, there were approximately 1 000 tourists per year and by 2001 there were approximately 80 000 visitors. Since 2007 tourist numbers have stagnated at around 170 000 annually because of the global financial crisis. If pre-crisis growth rates had continued, there were fears that number could have reached 300 000 tourists.

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The Galápagos Islands are remote and isolated, which allowed the ecosystems there to evolve over millions of years in a unique way. Many factors have interrupted these ecosystems drastically.  Now, there are a plethora of environmental problems plaguing the islands, some stemming from the pressures of world climate changes such as El Niño, others arising from commercial fishing, and overpopulation, and many resulting from the introduction of species by humans dating back to the 1800s… not to mention the grounding of the oil tanker Jessica in 2001 and the subsequent oil spill.

Humans have accidentally or willingly introduced plants and animals, such as feral goats, cats, and cattle, which have become the main threat to Galápagos. Quick to reproduce and with no natural predators, these alien species have decimated the habitats of native species. The native animals, lacking natural predators on the islands, are defenseless to introduced predators.  There are over 700 introduced plant species today. There are only 500 native and endemic species. This difference is creating a major problem for the islands and the natural species that inhabit them.

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There is also pressure on the natural resources and conservation problems that motor yachts and trash bring. Over fishing or illegal fishing has become a large issue. When migrants do not find work in tourism, they often find jobs in the fishing industry. The sea cucumber and sharks of the Galápagos have become alarming targets, both popular in Asian markets for their aphrodisiac or medicinal qualities.

However, some problems started way before the 60s, back when humans found out about these abundant islands. In 1793 the islands started being used as a base for the whalers operating in the Pacific Ocean. Whalers and maritime fur traders killed and captured thousands of the Galápagos tortoises to extract their fat and this hunting was responsible for greatly diminishing, and in some cases eliminating, certain species. Along with whalers came the fur-seal hunters, who brought the population of this animal close to extinction. Then, in 1820 the whaleship  Globe discovered sperm whales in the area which led to taking more than 2000 barrels of sperm whale oil and the news of the discovery back to the US. In turn there was an influx of whaleships to exploit the new whaling ground and the Galapagos Islands became a frequent stop for the whalers.

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It was surprising to us that “aside from the azure waters and nearby unspoilt white beaches, little distinguishes Puerto Ayora, where two-thirds of the islands’ 26,000 people live, from the mainland’s many grim towns of concrete and corrugated tin roofs”. According to this article, “many people on the Galapagos are locked in their own Darwinian struggle for a share of the dollars that tourism has brought in. Allegations of corruption and drug smuggling add to the small-town cauldron of jealous competition. Despite the estimated annual influx of $150m from tourism into the Galápagos economy, poverty remains a serious problem. A 2010 government study found that 31% of residents are poor, measured according to how well their basic needs are met. Galápagos also has above-average rates of domestic violence for Ecuador. More than 40% of the adult population have had only basic or no schooling at all, though literacy rates are higher than on the mainland. While Ecuador gets positive marks for the conservation effort, many locals feel hemmed in. They experience freedom of movement when they visit relatives on the mainland. At home, residents are restricted to the 3% of the islands not officially part of the national park, and prices for trips are too high for them to visit the same spots that tourists rave about. Mr Delgado believes this reduces their appreciation for conservation.”

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These were certainly our feelings as we counted in the new year on the Galápagos. We weren’t in the partying mood. Brimming with love and appreciation for nature and all that we were experiencing was enough of a celebration. We wandered around briefly – curious about the amount of litter and glitz that felt so alien and toxic in this natural sanctuary. We didn’t want to give our attention to the loud music and fireworks that we imagined frightening all the non-human beings tucked out of site. We didn’t want to gawk at the large plastic beer cups being thrown to the ground, that we’d later see in the ocean. We didn’t want to judge people staggering from too much alcohol. We just couldn’t imagine seeing in the new year in such a way in a place that deserves our respect, our light touch, clarity and peace.

We are not judging those for partying (although I am for littering!), it’s just that the way things are done on the islands don’t always seem to correlate with what we went there to experience: nature. I’m not just talking about the new year party. That example just made it clear. The way the tours are done, the shops, the streets, the way inhabitants on the islands live… I guess I had imagined that the sort of people who would live there would be passionate about that environment and be nature lovers but the truth is that many are simply there to make a living. Again, I’m not judging them… please don’t mistake my intention here as I’m just sharing with you how it is. I do think education is needed though.

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Whilst on the islands we read David Suzuki’s A Lifetime of Ideas. I think the following excerpt from his book is an apt summary of our experience too:

Homo sapiens is a truly global animal. Our adaptability, made possible by the inventiveness of our brain, has enabled us to occupy every continent. There is nowhere on Earth that we haven’t been. And we have invaded that hallowed biological laboratory that shaped Darwin’s thinking. Once remote hiding places for pirates, the Galápagos Islands are magical jewels attracting hordes of ecotourists.

The name Galápagos conjures up other words— HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin, finches, evolution. To a biologist, a visit to these fabled islands is a pilgrimage to the source of the inspiration for the great unifying concept in the life sciences. The remote equatorial archipelago, long protected from human habitation by its isolation, was an evolutionary laboratory seemingly made just for the observant scientist. Today, the islands are an Ecuadorian national park that allows the privileged visitor to take a trip back through time.

On arrival, my first impressions were of the animals that are present in awesome profusion—the iguanas, frigate birds, boobies, sea lions, flamingos, and tortoises. Birds, reptiles, and marine mammals, often in astonishing numbers, share overlapping territory, with remarkably little overt aggression. The most emotional part of the Galápagos experience for me was the animals’ complete lack of fear of humans. It was profoundly humbling to be ignored as a nonthreatening part of the surroundings. Based on what we have done to creatures elsewhere on Earth, Galápagos animals should flee from us in terror. I am deeply grateful that they don’t.

My second reaction was that the planet has grown so small that we can’t escape the evidence and impact of our species. It’s not just the bits of plastic and other human-created debris to be seen on every beach; ecotourism itself is the main force that shapes the fate of the flora and fauna here. Two airports allow jets to bring in a torrent of tourists, who support the islands’ human communities as well as the Ecuadorian government. As I watched the oil slick from bilge water being pumped from our small boat, I couldn’t help thinking that even the most enlightened tourists have an effect. And although ecosystems are resilient, there are limits.

When the second airport was built a few years ago, the ceiling on tourists was raised from 25 000 to 40 000 a year. The village of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island is exploding with unlimited immigration of Ecuadorians, and the impact of the 5 500 settlers is apparent everywhere. Continued growth of the island population will inexorably put greater pressure on the island ecosystems, and human and nonhuman needs will inevitably conflict.

The basic problem is that our ignorance is simply too vast to allow “management” of complex communities of organisms. The best approach is to be very conservative and tightly control the most destructive element in the islands, namely, us. History suggests that’s not likely.

Over tens of millennia of isolation, each island of the Galápagos was an evolutionary opportunity. New species arrived as part of the flotsam and jetsam that blow and wash onto any ocean islands. Most have disappeared; only a few survived. But like North and South America and Australia over the past five centuries, the Galápagos Islands in recent time have been radically altered both deliberately and accidentally by a succession of pirates, whalers, and settlers.

The famous giant tortoises, a source of fresh meat for ocean voyagers, were carted off by the tens of thousands, extinguishing them from some islands. Introduced plants such as elephant grass, guyaba, and wild cucumber have altered the species mix on some islands. Insects such as wasps and fire ants have taken hold and have become major pests for people, while the black-billed ani, a bird introduced to eat ticks and insect parasites on cattle, has become a major competitor with the endemic birds. But the real disasters have been the mammals such as cats, burros, goats, pigs, rats, and dogs. The government has instituted “control” programs to reduce or eradicate goats and cats by poison, traps, and hunting, but the logistical problems are enormous and each has its associated negative side.

The Charles Darwin Station on Santa Cruz Island supports research and has a breeding program to increase numbers of threatened animals such as tortoises for release back into the wild. But again, human perceptions and priorities based on limited knowledge are being imposed on the islands.

So although a visit to the Galápagos is a sublime experience, it does not provide an escape from the reality of the global ecocrisis. Yet sharing space that is home for other species is spiritually uplifting, filling us with awe, reverence, and indeed, love. These emotional connections could be the beginning of a new attitude that might eventually change the way we live on Earth.

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