The Galapagos Islands have evolved unique species of fauna and flora found nowhere else on earth. In 1835, young Charles Darwin visited the islands, and what he learned helped inspire his theory of natural selection. In 1978, the Galapagos Islands were designated a UNESCO World Heritage, signifying their "outstanding value to humanity." Today, they are a living laboratory of evolution and one of the world's premier ecotourism destinations. They are indeed a priceless world heritage. Like other isolated island groups however, the Galapagos Islands face serious challenges for the long-term survival of their marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Some of these challenges are summarized below, as well as some ideas for how you can help make a difference!
From pirates and whalers to modern visitors, humans have introduced plants and animals from the outside world. Goats, for example, were introduced in the 1850's and immediately began to take food from tortoises and iguanas. On the island of Isabella, there are more than 200,000 goats, which are extremely adaptable and hard to exterminate. The Park now uses helicopters to locate them. There are many others: cats kill young iguanas and chicks of birds; dogs eat turtle eggs and hunt adult iguanas. Pigs destroy bird nests; donkeys devour vegetation; rats eat eggs of the giant tortoises. Invasive species also include insects and plants, which are equally threatening. But eliminating one species at a time is not practical. The vegetation that goats eat provides cover for feral pigs. Cats eat rats. Dogs kill cats. There So needs to be an integrated, well-designed program. Eradicating introduced species and keeping new ones from arriving is a never-ending and enormously costly struggle.
Humans themselves are an introduced and invasive species, and the islands have seen a dramatic growth in recent years. Settlers from mainland Ecuador have moved to the islands in search of a better life. This population pressure causes serious problems for conservation. With only three percent of the islands set aside for human settlement, there is little room for people, and little for them to do except fish. Competition between local fishermen and the National Park and conservation workers has been heated and sometimes violent. Despite restrictions on new immigration, it continues. The people of the Galapagos themselves will ultimately be the best stewards of their natural heritage. Those who live in the Galapagos Islands need to share in the benefits of tourism and require good housing, health facilities, education, and jobs that contribute to the future of the islands.
Illegal industrial fishing and over-fishing by locals threaten to undermine the marine ecosystem. Sea cucumbers and lobsters have been harvested to dangerous levels, far exceeding limits recommended by scientists. Ships from other countries routinely enter the marine reserve illegally in search of rich catches, including sharks, which are harvested solely for their fins. Of particular concern is longline fishing, a technique used to catch fish using single-stranded fishing lines with hundreds of baited hooks, that almost always results in a large percentage of unintended capture including birds, turtles, sharks, and other marine wildlife. Recently, more than 600 scientists from 54 countries signed a petition urging the United Nations to impose a moratorium on longline fishing. Despite international opposition to longlining, Ecuador's Minister of Environment, helped the fishing sector to draft a proposal supporting it. As one noted conservationist has said, It is "overwhelmingly clear that we are about to play the final card - this the end game - for the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Once longlining is in, it will be utterly impossible to remain vigilant - since neither the capacity nor knowledge exist to do so, much less any option to turn back once the disaster of longlining unfolds."
Galapagos ecotourism has brought great economic benefit to Ecuador, and remains the only practical way of supporting the Galapagos National Park. The model of low-impact tourism developed in the Galapagos has served the islands well. Yet there are unwanted by-products from tourism when it is not operated responsibly - contamination from boat paint and engines, oil spills, overused sites, a drain on the fresh water supply, and introduction of plants and animals from the mainland. Tourism also needs to be kept to sustainable levels. This means a limit to the number of tourists, restriction on the type of tourism development, and close monitoring of tourist impacts.
The Government of Ecuador has been instrumental in protecting the Galapagos Islands, and for this they should be commended. In recent years, however, there have been lapses in financial support, enforcement of laws and regulations, and proper planning. A landmark effort among many organizations and governmental agencies produced the Special Law for the Galapagos. But the implementation and enforcement of this law will be a perpetual challenge.
Making a Difference
Adventure Life is always seeking ways that we can help make a positive impact on these issues. By deciding to visit the Galapagos, you are already becoming part of the solution. Your tourism dollars encourage the local population to seek sustainable employment and your presence sends a strong message to the Ecuadorian government that the preservation of the Galapagos Islands is a priority for individuals worldwide. Upon your return, you can further these efforts by sharing your experiences with others, raising awareness about this magical place and its conservation challenges. To meet the already massive and constantly growing task of preserving the Galapagos, IGTOA and its member companies have created the Galapagos Traveler Funding Program, a simple way for visitors to contribute to critical conservation and sustainable development projects and support important scientific research in the Galapagos Islands. Understand how you can be a part of the solution, click here.
Portions of this article have been reproduced with permission from the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association.