It’s quite humbling that thirteen scarred volcanic islands, scattered across 45,000 square kilometres of ocean, 960km adrift from the Ecuadorian mainland and defying permanent human colonization until the twentieth century, should have been so instrumental in changing humanity’s perception of itself. Yet it was the forbidding Galápagos Islands – once feared as a bewitched and waterless hell, then the haunt of pirates, and later still an inhospitable pit stop for whaling ships – that spurred Charles Darwin to formulate his theory of evolution by natural selection, catapulting science into the modern era and colouring the values and attitudes of the Western world ever since.
Three years before Darwin’s arrival in 1835, Ecuador claimed sovereignty over the islands, but attempts to colonize the islands were unsuccessful until the mid-twentieth century, and even then only in very small numbers. It was inevitable after Darwin’s discoveries and the global rise in recreational travel, that the Galápagos Islands’ matchless wildlife would start to pull in large numbers of tourists, money, and then migrants close behind.
A total of about 40,000 people live in just eight main settlements on four inhabited islands. In the centre of the archipelago lies Santa Cruz, site of Puerto Ayora, the islands’ most developed town, serviced by the airstrip on nearby Baltra island, where the majority of tourists begin a visit to the Galápagos. San Cristóbal, to the east, holds the provincial capital, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, and the archipelago’s other major runway. Straddling the equator to the west of Santa Cruz is the largest and most volcanically active of the islands, Isabela, whose main settlement, tiny Puerto Villamil, has an inter-island airport. Southerly Floreana, with its population of around a hundred people, has very little by way of infrastructure but does have a bizarre history of settlement.
The settled sites represent a mere three percent of the total land area of the archipelago. In response to the damage caused to flora and fauna by centuries of human interference, the rest of the land – more than 7600 square kilometres – has since 1959 been protected as a national park, with tourists restricted to the colonized areas and over sixty designated visitor sites spread across the islands. Most of these sites are reached by cruise boats only, or far less comprehensively by day-trips from the colonized areas, and visitors must be accompanied by a licensed guide. Each site has been chosen to show off the full diversity of the islands, and in a typical tour you’ll encounter different species of flora and fauna every day, many of them found nowhere else on Earth. Some of the remoter sites take longer to travel to, but the extra effort is often well rewarded: Española, for example, is special for its waved albatrosses (present April–Dec), while the flightless cormorant is only found on the coasts of Isabela and Fernandina. Birdwatchers are also bound to want to see the large sea-bird colonies on far-flung Genovesa.
It was also in 1959, the centenary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, that the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) was instituted, which six years later opened the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) in Puerto Ayora, whose vital work includes boosting the threatened populations of unique Galápagos species. In 1978 the archipelago was one of the first places to be made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, which declared it a World Biosphere Reserve six years later. Its position was further strengthened in 1986 with the creation of the Reserva Marina de Galápagos, protecting 133,000 square kilometres of ocean within a 40-nautical-mile radius around the islands, one of the largest marine reserves in the world. It’s mainly thanks to the huge conservation effort that the tourists who flock to the islands each year are privy to such incomparable experiences as swimming with Galápagos penguins and turtles, and walking beside boobies and marine iguanas as unique species of finches hop onto their shoes. The animals that have carved out an existence on the dramatic volcanic landscape conjure up visions of life completely devoid of human presence, and their legendary fearlessness only intensifies the otherworldliness of these extraordinary islands.Read More
Conservation in the Galápagos
Conservation in the Galápagos
No species has done more to upset the delicately balanced ecosystem of the Galápagos than humans. In one study of thousands of fossil bones, it was found that nearly every extinction of native species followed the arrival of Tomás de Berlanga, the first recorded visitor, in 1535. From that point onwards, the hunting of tortoises, fish, whales, fur seals and other animals has brought populations to the brink. Although our depredation of native species within the park has ceased, and fishing in the marine reserve is strictly controlled, a concerted conservation effort will always be needed to offset the impact of human colonization.
The introduction of foreign species
By far the worst human legacy on the islands has been the catastrophic introduction of alien species. When settlers arrived they brought with them plants, and domestic and farm animals that soon went wild, overrunning the islands and out-competing native species. Pigs trample vegetation, snaffle up land bird hatchlings and young tortoises and devour turtle eggs. Packs of feral dogs have attacked land iguanas, killing hundreds at a time on Santa Cruz and Isabela, and black rats, thought to be responsible for the extinction of endemic rice rats on four islands, killed every tortoise hatchling on Pinzón for most of the twentieth century. Wild goats are regarded as the biggest threat, denuding entire islands of vegetation, causing plant species to become extinct as well as depriving native species, particularly tortoises, of food, and encouraging soil erosion. Among some 490 accidentally introduced insect species are about 55 highly invasive types; these include two species of wasp, which eat indigenous butterfly and moth larvae, and the fire ant, only 2mm long and easy to transport unwittingly to new islands, which is having a devastating effect on native insects as well as attacking hatchling and adult tortoises. Introduced plants are also a major threat, disrupting the food chain from the bottom up. About ninety percent were introduced through agriculture, including guava, blackberry, red quinine and elephant grass, which are out of control on several islands, squeezing out native plants such as tree ferns, scalesia, guayabillo, cat’s claw and others; sixty percent of native plants are thought to be under threat.
The Galápagos National Park Service (GNPS) and the CDF have been following a three-pronged approach to the problem of introduced species. Eradication programmes have done enough to allow some threatened native species to recover. Feral pigs, donkeys and goats have been eliminated from Santiago, and goats have been eliminated from six of the islands and islets. On Isabela, trained dogs kitted with leather boots to protect their paws from the lava surface are being used to track goats down; captured goats – the so-called “Judas goats” – are radio-collared and released, eventually leading hunters back to the herd. The second vital strand of the conservation effort are repopulation programmes, such as the one for giant tortoises, where eggs are gathered, incubated, hatched and raised until large enough to survive predatory attacks before being repatriated. Land iguanas and rice rats have undergone the same treatment, with positive results. A quarantine system in ports and airports has inspectors checking incoming cargoes for alien pests and seeds and the usual stowaway frogs, rats and insects.
Friends of Galápagos
The best thing you can do as a visitor to help the conservation effort is to join the Friends of Galápagos, a network of international conservation organizations. Membership entitles you to detailed news bulletins about the islands and ongoing conservation work, and information on events and appeals. The Friends provide vital funding for the CDRS and the GNPS, both at the heart of Galápagos conservation. In the UK, contact the Galápagos Conservation Trust (GCT), 5 Derby St, London W1J 7AB (t020/7629 5049, wwww.savegalapagos.org); in the US, contact the Galápagos Conservancy, 11150 Fairfax Blvd, Suite 408, Fairfax, VA 22030 (t703/383-0077, wwww.galapagos.org); check the GCT website for other national Friends organizations or join up in the islands at the CDRS.
- A history of the islands
- Geography and geology
Important rules of the Galápagos
Important rules of the Galápagos
- Do not touch, feed, disturb or chase any animal.
- Do not move plants, rocks, shells or any natural objects.
- Do not take food onto the islands.
- Make sure you’re not carrying soil or seeds from one island to another on your clothes or shoes.
- Never throw litter overboard or on the islands.
- Do not buy souvenirs made of plant or animal products from the islands.
- Declare any organic products in your possession to the quarantine services on arrival.
- Plants, fresh flowers and live animals may not be brought to the islands.