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.

Element - - World - By Ca­role Cad­wal­ladr Guardian News & Me­dia 2012

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.”

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