Goats and tourists once threatened the unique wildlife of the Galapagos. Now the islands are out of danger. Sarah Tucker is thrilled at the change
The iguanas look like rocks. Poised amongst the large grey boulders which scatter the beaches of Espanola, southernmost island of the Galapagos, their lithe imperial bodies shimmer grey, blending perfectly with the background. Only their bead-black eyes and occasional, slow turn of the head distinguish them from their perch.
Red- and blue-footed birds stand in close attendance, looking like Disney extras; sea turtles, rays and small sharks patrol Black Turtle Cove, as curious as the periodic snorkelers who inspect them. Around Darwin Island the glossy-coated seals swim playfully, outshining and playing chicken with the visitors. And on Santa Cruz giant tortoises gather under eucalyptus trees – like Blue Peter tortoises but a hundred times larger – staring unblinking at the camera lens.
“If only they could talk,” muses one tourist, voicing the general feeling. To judge from their expressions, however, they would probably say: “Go away!”
It’s a scene unique to the Galapagos, the Pacific archipelago of 18 volcanic islands and over 100 rocks and inlets set around the Equator. Darwin sailed this way in 1835, drawing inspiration from the wildlife, nourishing seeds of thought that would germinate for a quarter of a century before bursting into flower with the publication of On the Origin of Species. For countless visitors, this province of Ecuador 500 miles west of the mainland is the place they most want to see on Earth.
And that’s part of the problem. Or it was. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, the islands suffered an influx of tourists; and this, combined with the introduction of domestic animals – especially goats, which decimated the flora and fauna on which the large tortoises and other indigenous creatures fed – soon had them on the list of World Heritage in Danger. Since then, however, the Ecuador government has worked hard to limit and monitor the number of visitors, charging entrance fees of up to $100. As a result, in 2010 the archipelago was removed from the list.
How have things changed? In 2008, when I was last there, visitors could walk freely amongst the iguanas, but they would also be stepping over piles of litter. Cans and plastic bottles floated in the water, while boatloads of tourists seemed more intent on enjoying their drink than admiring the dolphins skimming the surface of the water by their bow. Recently, when I returned with my son, it was different. No litter, fewer tourists – and such visitors as there were appeared better informed, anxious to play their part in protecting the indigenous species.
“The place is quietly impressive, isn’t it?” reflects Diego Torres Gorzon, a guide here for over 10 years. “Some visitors spend more time snorkeling than discovering the beauty of each island, but I think that more and more people now realize the fragility of the ecosystem. Tourists are much more respectful.”
Together we climb the Sierra Negra volcano on Isabela, the largest island, created from a fusion of six volcanoes. Every five minutes or so we pause to look over the edge, knowing that Sierra Negra could explode at any time. Only last year, two volcanoes erupted in Ecuador – although, as Diego explains, the wide-brimmed ‘shield volcanoes’ of the Galapagos are less destructive than their steeper, narrower mainland cousins.
But it is over on Santa Cruz that you’ll find the Charles Darwin Research Station and the HQ of the Galapagos National Park Service. Here visitors learn about Darwin’s discoveries and the history of the place, and see how the tortoises are hatched and reared. They also hear about the misdemeanours of the (now banned) goats, whose devastation of the land rendered many species of tortoise extinct.
Walking around the centre, we see visitors dewy-eyed at baby tortoises no larger than a human baby’s hand, or staring at the iguanas also bred here. Many also take photos of the celebrated Lonesome George, the only tortoise of his kind and the most endangered species in the world. Poor George. He looks utterly miserable at the thought of it.
“Visitors are often surprised to discover that people live and work on the islands,” explains Diego. “They see them as a living museum to be preserved untouched and, ironically, wish that no one were allowed to visit. But there are over 23,000 people on the islands who were born here, and they have a right to stay if they wish.
“We try to involve the locals in tourism. Many of them earn a living by helping to preserve the indigenous animals. Remember, if we ask them to give up their cows and sheep, we are inducing them to forsake the only way of making a crust they know, so we need to offer an alternative. Tourists often tell me that coming here has been the adventure of a lifetime, and they are glad if their trip has helped to keep the islands alive. Darwin would certainly have approved.”
- Sarah Tucker travelled with explore.co.uk. 17-day trips to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands from £3270 (no flights) or £4370 with flights. For more Galapagos info: galapagos.org