|Shooting the Boobies -- Ecosystem
The Galapagos has a unique, but fragile ecosystem..
getting into the heavy stuff, let me say this: Ecuador is to be saluted
for what it has done to preserve the Galapagos Islands. Very few countries
in the world have managed to do what Ecuador has, and when you consider
that this third-world country has been in political turmoil for many years,
you have to be even more impressed with what's been accomplished.
That said, the islands have a long and storied history that illustrates just how much negative impact humankind can have on an ecosystem.
The Galapagos Islands were probably discovered by the Incas, perhaps as far back as 1400. Officially, the date is set at 1535 during the height of the Spanish march through South America.
The name comes from the original designation "Insulae de los Galopegos" (Islands of the Tortoises). Another name was used unofficially: Las Islas Encantadas (The Enchanted Islands). Note that the namers didn't mean that in a positive way--a group of renegade sailors thought the islands bewitched, as they are stark looking and the strange, swirling currents seemed to take control of their boats, making it impossible for them to land.
The first human assault on the Galapagos ecosystem likely began with British Buccaneers chasing Spanish treasure ships leaving South American. The position of the islands made them a natural hiding place, and, as it turned out, the islands had probably the world's biggest stock of sailor friendly meat: just stick 500 or more tortoises in your hold and slaughter one when you need fresh meat. Since the tortoise had adapted to survive without food and water for long periods of time, they were the perfect meat for long expeditions.
Whalers discovered this, too. And it didn't help that fur seals were in demand for their insulating skins and present in large numbers, as well. With several hundred boats in operation in the area, it's not hard to guess the outcome. By the time Darwin landed in 1835, the tortoise population was already partially decimated and small civilizations had popped up on some of the islands. With man came rats, and rats preyed on tortoise eggs. Slowly but surely, dogs, cats, goats, pigs, and even donkeys were introduced to the islands, many of which were left to their own devices and became feral. Entire islands were purged of tortoises, and, thus, the humans moved to another island, moving the destruction with them. Perhaps as many as a quarter of a million tortoises disappeared in less than two centuries, and the once ubiquitous fur seals were made nearly extinct. This first human assault almost rid the islands of what was to eventually become their primary asset: the animals.
Tourism probably saved the remaining animal populations, though it took quite some time before tangible actions began reversing the previously destruction. The publication of William Beebe's Galapagos: World's End in 1924 was the catalyst. Basically a description of a scientific expedition sponsored by the New York Zoological Society, the book turned into a best seller, and soon a few wealthy individuals went to see for themselves the strange land described in the book (it didn't hurt that the Panama Canal made getting there a little easier for those on the East Coast or from Europe).
Nevertheless, it wasn't until the 100th anniversary of Darwin's visit that Ecuador got around to passing legislation to protect the islands. In 1934 wildlife sanctuaries were established on some of the islands, though this really didn't mean much. War soon put all thoughts of conservation aside. (Yes, we American's also have to fess up to our share of the damage: the site of the American base on Isabela is one with feral cats introduced by the soldiers, and the main military establishment on Baltra pretty much eradicated all but the shore-based wildlife there, including the entire population of land iguanas.)
It was the centennial of the publication of The Origin of Species in 1959 when the reversal of fortunes for the wildlife really began. Coincident with that event, Ecuador did several remarkable things:
Again, I can't stress how unusual all these moves are for a poor country like Ecuador. It would have been far easier to succumb to a development style tourist attraction (hotels, resorts, etc.), which would have pulled in more money to everyone's pockets in the short term. Many of America's so-called conservation programs look pallid compared to what Ecuador has done.
But this brings us to the second assault on the islands: tourism. The programs of the national park worked. Species were bred and reintroduced to a few islands. Feral animals were eradicated on others. No new development occurred outside the three small cities that are scattered though the islands. And tourists came to see what all the fuss was about. For quite some time, the few folk that lived in the Galapagos didn't mind, as tourism brought with it money, and the Darwin Station did yet another astonishing thing when they built training programs that turned local residents into naturalist guides.
The number of tourists that came to the islands rocketed. Even by 1990, when I first visited, the number was estimated at 50,000 a year. (Galapagos visitation figures are somewhat suspect. Because hard quotas were set several times and almost certainly exceeded, the government's published figures are sometimes optimistically low. At other times, during travel recessions, they sometimes seem over-inflated, perhaps so as not to overly worry those that depend upon the tourism industry.) Remember, all these folk are moving between sites in boats, so over the years the boats tended to get bigger and fancier. Originally, the boats weren't even required to have fire detectors and other safety features (this has thankfully been corrected). But they also weren't required to have waste management systems or pollution-free propulsion systems. Even as recently as 1992 I noticed overt practices such as throwing garbage overboard and emptying oil directly into the ocean (these days, I suspect that a few boats still practice such things covertly).
Don't underestimate the impact a little waste thrown in the wrong place can have. For example, one wonderful visitation site used to be the Alcedo volcano climb, a six-mile, 3000 foot trudge straight up the side of the cone to get to the caldera, where several hundred giant tortoise live. Because of the time it took to get up there, the park service used to allow only a small number of folk to camp there overnight. As I understand it, garbage left behind by some of those campers attracted the feral goats, a bad thing for the tortoises. The site is now closed to visitation, a real shame.
But the bigger problem is simply the number of people milling around the animals. The economics of boat travel led to the introduction of several large vessels (the largest at my last visit was the 300 foot, 90-passenger Galapagos Explorer). Imagine 90 passengers hitting a single visitation site (even if it is in carefully timed waves to minimize impact). The park service recognized this problem early and restricted large boats to only a handful of sites, but that still wasn't enough. At times I've seen as many as five 16-passenger boats tied up at the same location, which is nearly the same problem. Again, the park service changed regulations and now requires every boat to submit its itinerary far in advance of tours. More important, based upon the size, each boat can hit certain sites only so many times within a given time period (e.g., the same boat can't go to, say, Plaza Island on every tour they make; instead, they can visit the island perhaps once every month, or once every four tours). The result is that impact has been spread more evenly across sites, but the problem is that the limited number of sites really won't support much of an increase in tourism above current levels without site restrictions being eased.
More recently, a third assault occurred on the fragile ecosystem. Ecuador is not only a poor country, but for the past decade has been in political turmoil (five governments in five years is not exactly stable, is it?). Constant changes in government, rampant inflation, imprudent military spending, rapid changes in crude oil prices, bribery scandals, and a whole host of other problems have had their toll. But even in tourism's off years, the folk on the Galapagos were still earning decent livings, and the payment of tips in US dollars by many tourists helped ease the sting of inflation for many. While there were many signs of impending trouble, the first really nasty squabble came in 1992 when coastal fisherman discovered that the Japanese paid premium price for sea cucumbers, and the Galapagos Islands had zillions of these ugly little suckers. In a very short time, fishing camps popped up all over the park, and angry confrontations between conservationists and fisherman became the norm. By the time the government managed to mollify the fisherman (by allowing sea cucumber harvest for three months a year), they had decimated the sea cucumber population. But the standard of living of the Galapagos Island residents far exceeds that of the coastal Ecuadorians, and the fishing is still good there (of course it is, it's a protected National Park!), so the islands today find themselves with a constant inflow of development and resource extraction-minded folk. Puerto Ayora has grown significantly in population, as has every other settlement on the islands, and now it is not uncommon to see outright defiance of park regulations by native Ecuadorians. Indeed, things got so nasty that the Charles Darwin Station was torched, and researchers held as hostages.
The question on everyone's mind is whether Ecuador's government can once again assert itself and enforce strict conservationist policies. Can tourism be held to a manageable number (recently estimated at 60,000+ visitors a year, though I can't find reliable figures for any year past 1996)? Despite the threats to the park, Galapagos Islands is still a premiere destination. But it won't stay that way unless we all do our part to help. Therefore, I make the following recommendations to island travelers:
Just after writing this (January 2001), it was broadcast that a tanker had run aground on San Cristobal at Shipwreck Bay (!), and an oil spill threatened the park. Later reports indicate that almost two-thirds of the tanker's diesel fuel load emptied into the ocean, though much of this was swept away from the islands by the prevailing currents. For a short time, visitor sites on both San Cristobal and Sante Fe were closed while animal cleanups and damage assessment were performed. Since the wreck could not be removed, Ecuador decided to sink it in place to form a new reef. While the oil spill turned out to be a minor crisis instead of the ecological disaster that was feared, it still points out how vulnerable these islands are. Even the brief closings of several sites required changes to many boat schedules, and substantially increased the visitor traffic on North Seymour, for example.
The Good Guys
The following organzations work towards helping preserve the Galapagos in some way.