Galapagos menaced by tourist invasion
Tourism will wreck the wonders of the Galapagos – where animal and plant life is being wiped out – unless action is taken soon.
Opening what looks like the drawer of an office filing cabinet, Gustavo Jimenez, a scientist at the Charles Darwin Foundation on the Galapagos, reaches inside, rummages around, and then pulls out not a report or a file, but a massive stuffed albatross. It’s about the size of a toddler, just one of hundreds of stuffed birds and animals in the foundation’s vertebrate collection.
It had the misfortune to live on one of the two islands that have an airport. About once a month, Jimenez receives a body that has been flattened by a bus or landed on by an aircraft.
Then there are the finches, the songbirds that inspired Charles Darwin to formulate the theory of evolution. Now they are roadkill. “There are now so many people living in the highlands,” says Jimenez. “So many cars. It’s impossible to estimate how many are run over a year, but at least 10,000.” To put this in context, there are only just over 100 left of the most endangered type, the mangrove finch.
The Galapagos, as well as being one of the most fragile environments on Earth, is also is one of the fastest-growing economies in South America. Per capita income is higher here than anywhere else in Ecuador. Nearly 40,000 people have made their home here, drawn by tourism, and with them have come hundreds of introduced species, invasive plants and an infrastructure that simply can’t cope.
“It’s unsustainable,” says Felipe Cruz, the director of technical assistance at the Charles Darwin Foundation. “There’s constantly more, more, more. More flights, more hotels, more cars. It’s uncontrolled. We talk about ecotourism but in reality it’s already showing signs of being mass tourism. People aren’t even coming for the wildlife any more. They just come for a vacation.”
Yet it is still an extraordinary place. Even in Isabela’s Port, among the boats and the noise, there are penguins and stingrays and pelicans and when I go for a swim, I end up frolicking with a group of sea lions that behave more like a litter of puppies.
Robert Silbermann, the chief executive of the Galapagos Conservation Trust, says things need to change. “What’s clear is things can’t continue in the way they have been. There is a need to take action now. It can’t wait five years.”