Latin America, Nature

The living museum

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Despite being taken of UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger in 2010, the endemic species of the Ecuadorian Galápagos Islands still face serious threats.

Some call it a ‘living museum’ and a ‘showcase of evolution’. Some 600 kilometres west of Ecuador, a cluster of more than 100 islands house what is perhaps the most endemic group of species on earth. It’s a place where marine iguanas and giant tortoises hang out on volcanic rocks and beaches, next to a rare melting pot of marine life. But it’s also much more than that.

What makes the Galápagos Islands so special centres on their unusual formation. Located over a volcanic hotspot, they have been created by eruptions, layer-by-layer. Some are five million years old; others are still being formed. As such, their altitudes vary, enabling a wide range of species to settle. Due to the islands’ geological separation, these species have evolved in isolated environments, each over different time periods. The result is a catalogue of unique evolutionary processes at one place.

One of the naturalists astounded by this was Charles Darwin, whose expedition to the islands in 1835 inspired him to form his theory of evolution by natural selection. But he wasn’t the first visitor. That honour befell the fourth bishop of Panama, Spaniard Fray Tomás de Berlanga, who accidentally discovered the islands in 1535 after sailing off course on his way to Peru. Due to tricky terrain, the first humans settled only in the 1800s. Today it is home to around 30,000 people living off tourism, fishery and trade.

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The tourism, which accounts for 75 per cent of the islands’ economy, relies on wildlife and an unusual blend of marine life. The Galápagos are placed at the confluence of three ocean currents; the warm ones allowing mangrove forests, coral reefs and other marine environments to flourish; the deeper cold-water currents fuelling a food chain for sea lions, sharks and penguins. Understandably, alongside the islands themselves – a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1959 – the 83-square-mile Galápagos Marine Reserve was added to UNESCO’s heritage list in 2001 and is now among the world’s largest protected aquatic areas.

But the wildlife remains the real sparkle. The animals are remarkably unafraid of humans, making close-up encounters with visitors common. Species largely live in groups, and reptiles such as marine iguanas can bask on the beaches in their hundreds. Yet their fragility is lost on no one; endemism extends to 80 per cent of the islands’ land birds, 30 per cent of plants and 97 per cent of reptiles. Species like giant tortoises, sea turtles, blue-footed boobies, penguins, sea lions and land iguanas are all in the red zone.

As much as 97 per cent of the islands’ terrestrial area is declared national park, but conservation is not that simple. Careless tourism, climate change and invasive species threaten the islands despite significant efforts from numerous organisations (such as the Charles Darwin Foundation, the Galápagos Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and the Galápagos Conservation Trust). Tourist and fishing boats create death traps by dropping litter and fishing nets, while overpopulation pose overwhelming challenges to the islands’ waste management. Climate change is another worry, with warm climate patterns drastically reducing the fauna; a taster of what permanent overheating may cause.

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The biggest concern, however, is invasive species. Goats, pigs, cats, plants, and insects are imported with tourists and immigrants, outcompeting native species for food and resources. “They are having a major impact upon the local endemic species,” says Ian Dunn, chief executive of the Galápagos Conservation Trust. “We are increasingly funding science to try to minimise the future impact but also to control the present impact.” Already, the luggage of incoming tourists is checked and often sprayed to kill insects and plants. The next major project, Dunn says, is to remove rats. “They are extremely damaging in terms of predation on the young. Whether that’s iguanas, tortoises or birds, the eggs and the young are taken by rats increasingly.”

What else is being done? Several community programmes are in motion to educate locals, from pupils to hotel and restaurant owners, about delivering tourism services sustainably. This ranges from buying securely imported produce to growing vegetables responsibly. “It’s very much the right thing to support the economy,” says Dunn. “Hopefully the local population can then take ownership of what brings the tourists in, which is this wonderful, iconic environment. You do need the economic incentive to maintain what is so compelling about it. Tourism can deliver that, but it needs to be tourism in an eco-sensitive way.”

Conservation of marine and animal life has been in place since the 1930s but, despite the ongoing work, the future remains uncertain. “The challenges facing the islands are increasing and our ability to respond to them will fundamentally depend on what funding we can get,” says Dunn. “The next 20 to 50 years will determine how much of the islands we will be able to preserve in the long term. It’s a challenge for this generation and the next generation, because we can’t look further than that.”

Are the outlooks positive? “I think society is beginning to focus more on addressing the issues around preservation, so I’m optimistic that we are moving as a society the right way,” he says. “But we’ve got an awful long way to go.”

Photos: Kersti Joergensen, SidEcuador, Sunshine Pics [all via Shutterstock.com].

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