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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Galapagos Under Threat

Air Date: Week of

Reporter Martha Honey takes us to the Galapagos Islands to witness threats to the islands’ fragile ecosystem. Today, commercial fishing, immigration, tourism, and even animal poaching are impacting this once-pristine location made famous by Charles Darwin’s evolution theories.


NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley, in this week for Steve Curwood.

Earlier this year, wildfires swept across 21,000 acres of the island of Isabela in the Galapagos, an archipelago of some 60 volcanic islands 600 miles into the Pacific off Ecuador. The fires apparently spared many of the island's rare and unique species, but they've also focused attention on this tiny, fragile corner of the planet, which played a big role in our understanding of how life on Earth develops. Back in the 1830s, Charles Darwin spent a brief time in the Galapagos during the voyage of the Beagle, and the strange animals he found there inspired his theory of evolution by natural selection: a theory which changed the course of Western scientific thought. Today, most of the Galapagos archipelago is a national park, and a model for successful conservation management. But the island's unique ecosystems are now threatened: by poaching, by development, and by a growing influx of tourists and immigrants. Martha Honey recently traveled to the Galapagos and files this report.

(Sea lions calling; man speaking in Spanish about "lobos marinas"; sounds of surf, gulls)

HONEY: Standing on the edge of a beach, a naturalist guide tells a small group of tourists about the habits of the local sea lion population. The sea lions lounge like huge gray rocks on the powder-white sand, seemingly oblivious to the human spectators. A century and a half ago, Charles Darwin also noted the unusual tameness of the Galapagos animals, along with another phenomenon: that many of these islands have developed their own, unique species of animals and plants. The Galapagos Islands served as a key test site for Darwin's theories that all living creatures evolve, or adapt, to their environment.

(Bird calls)

HONEY: Because of the islands' remoteness, human predators have rarely molested the animals. Here, like nowhere else in the world, people, scientists as well as tourists, can get within feet, sometimes inches, of sea lions, iguanas, giant tortoises, and rare birds such as the blue-footed booby or flightless cormorant. Even today, as thousands of tourists flock here every year, humans seem to have had little impact.

MEHEA: I think that one of the things that's been most striking to me is that for all the people that come here, there's very little mark left on the land. It's really nice to see what Earth looks like without man's imprint.

(Footfalls on the sand, birds twittering)

HONEY: Keeping footprints off the Galapagos means strict rules for all visitors like Ben Mehea. Guides make sure people stay on the small, narrow gravel paths, don't touch or take anything, and don't disturb the animals. And before leaving, everyone carefully washes off, so as not to transport anything, even grains of sand, from one island to another. Many of the tourists here are Americans; they're part of the new wave of tourists seeking pristine natural beauty. And they seem to have found what they're looking for. But scientists here are deeply worried that man's imprint is beginning to change the islands.

FRITZ: This is a critical time for Galapagos.

HONEY: Tom Fritz is an American biologist who has worked in the Galapagos over the past 2 decades. He fears that the islands are in danger.

FRITZ: We have to realize that we can't continue to push it toward the brink of disaster without some risk. We are constantly at threat of reaching that, that precipice of irretrievable damage to the island ecosystem.

(Sounds of traffic, human voices)

HONEY: It's here in the bustling harbor town of Puerto Ayora that you begin to understand the threats. This is part of just 3% of the Galapagos land where people are permitted to live. The rest is a national park. Tourism has nearly tripled over the last decade to an official figure of just under 50,000 last year. The government is supposed to set limits on the number of visitors, but it keeps raising the ceiling.

(Sounds of construction, hammering)

HONEY: It's not so much that visitors themselves are the problem, but the tourist boom has also brought increased immigration. The Galapagos is by far the fastest-growing province in Ecuador.

(Music and conversation)

HONEY: Lyjia Ayove works in one of the small outdoor restaurants. Over the past decade, she and 14 members of her family have moved here from the crowded mainland port city of Guayaquil.

AYOVE: (speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: It's harder to find work on the mainland. Here it's easier. Economically, life is better here.

HONEY: But so much immigration into the Galapagos is no longer sustainable. There's not enough fresh water and electricity. Too much garbage, unemployment, and petty crime. New arrivals don't understand or respect the island's fragile environment. Yet, under Ecuador's constitution, citizens have the right to move freely throughout the country. Santiago Matheus heads the government's Galapagos Commission.

MATHEUS: Obviously I wish the Galapagos Islands were only a park, but it's too late. We have to live with the fact that there is people there, and we have to give people tremendous importance. I don't see, in the near future, a change in the Constitution; therefore, your possibilities of limiting migration legally are very difficult.

(Office sounds: clacking, ratcheting)

HONEY: In the breezy offices of the National Park's headquarters, scientists are tracking another form of immigration. These are the so-called introduced species brought in by boat or plane from the outside. If not checked, these will critically alter the islands' importance as a laboratory for studying natural evolution. Arturo Izurieta is a biologist and director of the Galapagos National Parks. Unlike many other government officials, he frankly discusses the problems confronting the islands.

IZURIETA: We are fighting very hard with introduced organisms, which are arriving probably every day without us knowing. Like in cargo boats, an ant or a fungi or a bacteria. I think that the responsibility of preserving the ecosystems as they were formed many years ago is one of our, my greatest concerns. We have to fight against all introductions.

(Television announcer, speaking in Spanish)

HONEY: In February, Ecuadorian TV showed shocking footage. Large encampments found on two of the most pristine islands in the Galapagos. Scores of fishermen were diving in the shallow waters and collecting an estimated 150,000 sea cucumbers a day for export to Asia.

(Announcer continues)

HONEY: Commercial fishing like this is yet another of the problems affecting the Galapagos. It's illegal, but once again, there's little enforcement. Large numbers of shark, lobster, and tuna are also being caught and exported. The man whom many say was one of the chief instigators of the illegal sea cucumber trade in the Galapagos is Luis Copiano. He came from Ecuador's mainland and now runs the Coca Cola distributorship in Puerto Ayora. Copiano admits that he was exporting sea cucumbers overseas, but he claims he had permission to do so. Government officials deny this. Copiano angrily protests that he's lost a lot of money because the government closed his fishing camps.

COPIANO: I don't know why they are against fishing here in the Galapagos. It's something - they have no, no rights to come here from nowhere, giving orders from a desk, from Quito, to the people that live here, they've been living here, they were born here, and tell them what to do and what not to do. I don't understand why people from more, some, from other countries come here and give us, tell us what to do or what not to do. I believe that's crazy. That's - if I was the president, Jesus Christ.

(Bird sounds))

HONEY: In the island's interior, among the black lava fields and cacti, tourists view the famed Galapagos giant tortoises, who are among the largest and rarest in the world. In recent months, park guards have discovered 39 butchered tortoises, young ones as well as adults. Park officials announced that poachers had killed the tortoises for their meat, but several conservationists wonder if there was another motive. They say the large number of victims suggests that the tortoises may have been killed in response to the crackdown on illegal fishing. In any case, the slaughter is a sign of how difficult it can be for park officials to enforce the regulations.

(Indoor conversation)

HONEY: But even as these problems mount, international funding for the Galapagos's main research station has been dropping. Chantal Blandon is director of the Charles Darwin Research Station, which, among other things, breeds the giant tortoises. She warns that if the islands are to be preserved, the international community must increase its assistance to the Galapagos.

BLANDON: The Ecuadorian government made an extremely brave decision in 1959 to set Galapagos aside as special. Our great hope is that the Ecuadorian government will be supported by the international community and conservationists worldwide to make this place last as it is.

(Sounds of wood being piled, man speaking)

HONEY: Blandon in others say tourists, too, have a role to play. Visitors need to appreciate not only the archipelago's natural wonders, but also its scientific importance and ecological fragility. And, Blandon says, they must become part of an international effort to preserve and protect the islands. Darwin called the Galapagos "a little world within itself, where one can see the mystery of mysteries: the first appearance of new beings on this earth." Today, naturalists in the Galapagos Islands fear that this tiny paradise, this key to evolution, will disappear unless the destructive impacts of humans are effectively controlled. For Living on Earth, this is Martha Honey.



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