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

July 22, 1994

Air Date: July 22, 1994


Galapagos Under Threat / Martha Honey

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. (11:10)

Finches Change / Jonathan Weiner

Jonathan Weiner, author of The Beak of the Finch, is interviewed about observations in natural selection in these small birds. Weiner also reflects on human choices in consumption and sustainability. (06:06)

Will Wonders Never Cease?

We follow up on listener line comments in response to Alan Durning’s piece on the “Seven Sustainable Wonders of the World.” (03:18)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1994 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Jan Nunley
NEWSCASTER: David Wright
REPORTERS: Pye Chamberlain, Alex Kirby, Martha Honey
GUEST: Jonathan Weiner

(Theme music intro)

NUNLEY: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley.

Charles Darwin discovered the keys to natural selection in Ecuador's Galapagos Islands, but today efforts to preserve the Galapagos's unique ecosystems are running up against the interests of tourism, immigration, and fishing.

COPIANO: I don't know why they are against fishing here in the Galapagos. I don't understand why people from other countries come here and tell us what to do or what not to do. I believe that's crazy.

NUNLEY: Also, an author's view of how human activities are affecting evolution in the Galapagos and beyond.

WIENER: This time is a time of enormous evolutionary upheaval, because here we have an ecological dominant, ourselves, that is transforming the conditions of life for every living thing on the planet.

NUNLEY: On Living on Earth. First the news.

Environmental News

WRIGHT: I'm David Wright with this summary of environmental news. The Clinton Administration's plans to cut the nation's greenhouse gas emissions may be in trouble. The White House requested almost a billion dollars for vital energy conservation portions of the program, but it's likely Congress will fund much less than that. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary has said such a cutback would put the President's climate change goal out of reach. President Clinton had hoped to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. From Washington, Pye Chamberlain has more.

CHAMBERLAIN: O'Leary warned that a cut of as much of $150 million in the budget request would cripple the program. The House has approved a cut of about $150 million. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted for a much deeper cut. Given the standard Congressional practice of splitting the difference on appropriations, the end result is likely to be a cut much greater than the one Secretary O'Leary says the program can stand. The request included $119 million specifically to reduce greenhouse gases suspected of causing global warming. That appears likely to be cut to roughly $40 million. Many lawmakers view the conservation programs as untested, and worry about finding cuts elsewhere in the budget to offset the spending. Environmentalists say they will push to have some money added in the full Senate, but their hopes are not high. For Living on Earth, I'm Pye Chamberlain in Washington.

WRIGHT: First the interior department decided to take a broad approach to regulation with its ecosystem-wide management plan to protect endangered species. Now the Environmental Protection Agency wants to follow suit. The EPA has announced a plan to emphasize industry-wide solutions rather than regulating each air and water pollutant separately. EPA head Carol Browner said the new program will bring together teams of industry, environmental, and government representatives to re-examine major environmental problems and regulations.

BROWNER: By working together, we can capture the creativity and the ingenuity that have long been the great strength of this nation.

WRIGHT: But that consensus approach is what worries some environmentalists. While admitting there were potential benefits to the EPA program, a spokesperson with the Natural Resources Defense Council feared the Agency's role could slide from one of environmental regulation to mere mediation.

In a delayed but devastating reaction to last summer's Midwest flooding, large numbers of trees along the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois rivers are dying. Foresters say the duration of the deluge and the large amount of silt it left behind combined to suffocate root systems. One forester estimates that half the trees along the rivers have died or will die with hackberry, elm, hickory, and oak taking the hardest hit. Animals species such as eagles, heron, and woodpeckers, which flourish among dead trees, may benefit, but squirrels, deer, and other acorn eaters are expected to suffer. Scientists also worry that a single dominant species could take over in formerly mixed growth forests. This is Living on Earth.

Bodies of scores of endangered sea turtles have washed ashore along the Texas coast since the shrimp season opened in early July, and Federal officials are blaming shrimpers for the deaths. Since 1987, shrimp boats in the Gulf of Mexico have been required to use special devices to keep turtles from being caught and drowned in their nets. But some boats apparently aren't using them. The National Marine Fishery Services has announced a crackdown on outlaw shrimpers. The Fishery Service says if the deaths continue, they may have to close some waters to shrimp fishing.

Britain's worst ever asthma epidemic has spurred calls for new anti-pollution efforts. Doctors blame high smog levels for the drastic increase in lung problems throughout the country. From London, the BBC's Alex Kirby reports.

KIRBY: Doctors and health officials say hundreds of people needed treatment during the crisis. They say an unknown number died. The outbreak was partly caused by high pollen counts and triggered by widespread thunderstorms. But air pollution was also implicated, chiefly ozone and nitrogen dioxides from road traffic. Britain has had several weeks of hot, windless weather sitting like a lid on top of the pollution and stopping it from dispersing. But the problem is not new. Asthma kills 2,000 Britons a year, and 1 school child in 7 now suffers from the condition. Doctors say what's needed is a cut in car use and a better public transport system, but there's little sign of government action. For Living on Earth, I'm Alex Kirby in London.

WRIGHT: Trash disposal will soon weigh heavily on the minds and the wallets of residents of Oakland Park, Florida. The town will become the first in the US to regularly charge homeowners for every pound of trash it picks up. Under the plan, trash cans electronically coded with names and addresses will be distributed to each house. Weight-sensitive lifters on garbage trucks will relay to a computer how much trash each home is throwing away. Town officials say the system will save them money, and hopefully spur an increase in recycling.

That's this summary of environmental news. I'm David Wright.

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(Theme music up and under)

Galapagos Under Threat

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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(Music up and under)

Finches Change

NUNLEY: Perhaps the most famous creatures of the Galapagos are its 13 species of finches. Charles Darwin was fascinated by the diversity of their beaks, which permit each type of finch to specialize in eating certain kinds of foods. Darwin decided the finches had all evolved from one common ancestor, a crucial step in his development of the theory of evolution. For more than a century, Darwin's theory remained unproven, and while it was accepted as fact by the scientific world, no one had ever actually witnessed natural selection in action. Researchers assumed the process of evolution was just too slow for humans to observe. But over the past 20 years, Princeton biologists Rosemary and Peter Grant have actually seen evolution in progress. Over many generations they've watched the finches of one tiny island in the Galapagos evolve in response to changes in the weather, food supply, and other conditions. Their work, and that of the Galapagos as a crucible of ongoing evolution, is chronicled in The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time, by Jonathan Wiener. Mr. Weiner joins us now from the studios of WHYY in Philadelphia. Thanks for coming in.

WIENER: It's good to be here.

NUNLEY: All right. What sorts of changes have the Grants seen in the finches over the years?

WEINER: They've seen changes of many kinds. They've seen changes through the pressure of droughts and floods on the island, which transform the island sometimes from desert to jungle in a heavy rain or, again, from jungle to desert in the space of a dry season. Those are selection pressures that create enormous, enormous upheaval among the birds, and lead to evolutionary change mostly in their beaks. They've also seen selection created by the birds themselves. Every rainy season, at the start of the year, they select among each other, and that sexual selection pressure, as Darwin called it, also produces measurable change in the birds and their beaks.

NUNLEY: Now what about human-generated changes? I'm talking about the kind of pressures that are described in Martha Honey's report that we just heard. How have they affected evolution among Darwin's finches in the Galapagos?

WEINER: In some cases dramatically. I saw this myself. When I visited the Grants I stopped in Puerto Ayora, the fishing village on the island of Santa Cruz, and there the birds are really the sparrows of the village. They're underfoot all the time; they're in the roads, they're in people's gardens, they're pecking at seeds on the window sills. I fed them out of my own hands. That feeding of the finches is a change in the selection pressures that these birds are under. And the result seems to be that the birds are fusing. They are losing their distinctive beaks, and they seem to be melding, morphing, into one Darwin's finch. The reason is that they're no longer under the same selection pressure in the village that they are in the uninhabited outlying islands. And so they don't need all that specialized equipment. And very rapidly, in the space of a century or so, they seem to be losing it.

NUNLEY: How are we affecting evolution on a grander scale; that is, worldwide?

WEINER: This time that we are living in now is a time of enormous evolutionary upheaval. For better or for worse, this may be the most dramatic time for us to have watched evolution since evolution began, because here we have an ecological dominant, ourselves, that is transforming every continent, transforming the conditions of life for every living thing on the planet. Think of the ozone hole, for instance. That's dosing all of life around the South Pole with a greatly increased ultraviolet radiation. And that produces selection pressures as intense as anything in the Galapagos on the plankton and on all that feeds on the plankton. Where also through hunting, for instance, or poaching, producing new selection pressures. Elephants in some of the most heavily poached preserves and rainforests in Africa have moved toward tusklessness. The reason is that those without tusks are much less likely to be shot by a poacher. And so inadvertently, the poachers are driving the evolution of the elephants in precisely the opposite direction the poachers themselves would like.

NUNLEY: Near the end of your book you talk about a group of cactus finches who effectively cheat on the rest of the flock in a way that could some day endanger the entire species. Now, is this a parable for the impact people may be having on the planet?

WEINER: That's the way it struck me when I first heard about it. Cactus finches, which depend entirely on these cactus for their survival, were landing on the flowers, pulling them open with their beaks, snipping the stigma, that tall tube which otherwise would poke them in the eye as they reached in, reaching into the flower, and getting some pollen and some nectar that the other birds couldn't get because they were still waiting for the flowers to open. By doing that, those stigma snippers were destroying the flowers, and they were in effect eating the seed corn. They were reducing their own food supply for the next months and years. But they got an immediate benefit by doing it, and so they prospered and they continue to do it year after year. It's quite possible that one of these years they will do what they've almost done several times in the Grants' experience already. They'll drive their own kind extinct on Daphne Major. The way we're behaving right now as a species is very much like those cactus finches. We're consuming the resources of the planet at a great rate. So we are also eating the seed corn. And again, Darwin's process can't arrest that. Only our own conscious planning and forethought and legal systems can prevent that.

NUNLEY: I want to thank you, Jonathan Weiner, who is the author of The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time. Thanks so much for joining us.

WEINER: Thank you very much.

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(Music up and under)

Will Wonders Never Cease?

NUNLEY: And now it's time to hear from you, our listeners. We received a number of nominations for sustainable wonders following Alan Durning's recent commentary on the seven sustainable wonders of the modern world: those innovations which meet vital needs without creating a lot of pollution or waste. Durning's list included items like the clothesline, the telephone, and the bicycle.

CALLER: Hi, my name is Bryce Cunningham. I'm calling from Brighton, Massachusetts. My public radio station is WBUR in Boston. I will give you my list of sustainable wonders. I have a personal computer, the CD ROM, Internet, cornstarch-based peanuts for packaging as opposed to styrofoam peanuts, spirulina, the soybean, and public transportation.

NUNLEY: Tom Bloom from Iowa City, Iowa, a listener to KUNI, nominated the push lawnmower as a sustainable wonder; and Gretchen Pritchard of New Haven, Connecticut, had the same idea, plus another.

PRITCHARD: I have two candidates for sustainable wonders. One is the push lawnmower, which is quiet, uses no energy except human power, and cuts grass better than the power mower. And my second is the good old fashioned chamber pot. You may laugh, but in fact if all of us urinated in chamber pots instead of in flush toilets and then emptied the chamber pots down the sink and just rinsed with perhaps a cup of water, we would save a very great deal of water at no cost to our own health or convenience at all. So those are my suggestions. Thank you.

NUNLEY: Okay. Kathleen Ingstrom, who listens to Vermont Public Radio in St. Albans, Vermont, reminded us of another renewable wonder.

INGSTROM: Alan Durning, you forgot about breastfeeding being an ecologically sound practice. It not only spaces babies when women breastfeed their babies long enough. There is no packaging involved to throw away, no energy used to hear or warm up formula, sterilize bottles, etc.

NUNLEY: Finally, we received this call in support of an exceedingly humble bit of technology.

CALLER: Hi, this is Pete Peterson calling from True, West Virginia. I would like to add to your list of sustainable wonders of the world the flyswatter. Very low tech, inexpensive to produce, or you can make your own if necessary out of a roll of newspaper. You can be very selective about the insects that you kill. It doesn't have to kill any beneficial insects. You can just use it for the annoying ones. And it also is a little bit of exercise. Thank you.

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NUNLEY: We continue to welcome your nominees for sustainable wonders of the world, and of course other thoughts and comments about our show are always welcome, too. Pick up that handy, sustainable wonder, the telephone, and give us a call at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or use that old standby, the postal service, by writing to us at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. That's Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Transcripts and tapes are available for $10.

(Music up and under)

NUNLEY: Living on Earth's production team includes Julia Madeson, Jessika Bella Mura, Nora Alogna, J.P. Anderson, Danielle Wyser-Pratte, and Colleen Singer Coxe. Our director is Deborah Stavro. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, and our associate producer is Kim Motylewski. Our program is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. Studio engineers are WBUR's Laurie Azaria, Keith Shields, and Bob Connolly. Michael Aharon wrote our theme.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, with assistance from WBUR, Boston. The executive producer is Steve Curwood, who will be back next week. I'm Jan Nunley.

ANNOUNCER: Major contributors to Living On Earth include all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt - whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; the National Science Foundation; the Pew Charitable Trusts; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation. Additional contributors include Jennifer and Ted Stanley and, for New England reporting, the Jessie B. Cox Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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