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Galapagos under siege

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The remote islands are known for a prehistoric landscape. A flock of well-meaning ecotourists is posing a new threat.

Most of the wild goats that ravaged this famous archipelago, denuding some islands of their vegetation, have been hunted down. The same goes for the wild pigs that ate turtle eggs and killed small animals. Now comes the biggest problem of all — people like me.

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The remote islands are known for a prehistoric landscape. A flock of well-meaning ecotourists is posing a new threat.

Most of the wild goats that ravaged this famous archipelago, denuding some islands of their vegetation, have been hunted down. The same goes for the wild pigs that ate turtle eggs and killed small animals. Now comes the biggest problem of all — people like me.

I’ve just spent two days here in Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galapagos, where new cinderblock buildings are radiating in every direction. This was followed by a five-day cruise to see the remarkable wildlife that inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The new hotels in Puerto Ayora and the large cruise ships — eight of them now carry as many visitors as the 72 smaller vessels that used to represent local tourism — are signs of the times. They’re part of the spiraling growth that has tripled the number of annual visitors to 120,000 in 15 years.

Tourism has brought prosperity but it’s also creating a new set of problems. Migrants are coming from the impoverished Ecuadorian mainland to work in the travel industry. The residents and tourists must be serviced by an ever-growing fleet of cargo ships and airplanes, which are bringing invasive species as unwanted hitchhikers.

In April, Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, declared the Galapagos, an island chain 600 miles offshore, in imminent danger. He also raised the possibility of restrictions on tourism. Pointing to unsustainable tourism development, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has put the Galapagos on its “World Heritage in Danger” list. Fewer than 4% of Unesco’s sites are on this list. They could eventually lose World Heritage designation — and the tourism draw that goes with it — if changes aren’t made.

“The big problem is that the Galapagos was a formerly isolated island group that suddenly became part of the whole world scene,” says David Blanton, executive director of the nonprofit International Galapagos Tour Operators Association.

The other-worldliness of the Galapagos — a moonscape inhabited by creatures that exist nowhere else on earth and act like no others — is what gives the islands their fascination. The isolation of the Galapagos made it an ideal laboratory for the theory of evolution. Species arriving by air or ocean currents had to adapt to the unique conditions of the islands, which were formed by volcanos rising from the sea bed. This inspired Charles Darwin to draw up his theory in the mid-1800s — that only the fittest survive by gradually changing their physical characteristics to adapt to their surroundings.

The flightless cormorants, for instance, a bird native to the Galapagos, exchanged their ability to fly for stronger legs to enhance their swimming and diving prowess. The marine iguanas, the world’s only seagoing lizard, developed nasal glands to excrete salt.

Many of these native animals, particularly the large, scaly iguanas, give a prehistoric aura to the landscape. This is made more dramatic by the volcanic craters in the distance, the beds of lava dotted with lakes and interspersed with patches of cacti. The only sounds are those of nature — the calls of birds, the barking of male sea lions establishing dominance, the grunting of giant tortoises.

Although right on the Equator, the cold Humboldt current, which flows by the Galapagos, provides teeming ocean life that supports many of the islands’ species. The snorkeling here is distinguished not only by the large variety of fish, but by the chance to swim alongside tame sea lions, penguins and large sea turtles.

The islands’ fragile ecosystem can be easily disrupted, particularly as the increasing number of planes and ships landing in the Galapagos bring foreign species. Whether insects, snakes or feral cats and dogs, the invaders can wreak havoc by destroying plants and other food sources, eating eggs or attacking birds or mammals.

Fire ants, for instance, have been discovered aboard ships that come from Ecuador and are small enough to slip through quarantine, says Charlotte Causton, head of the terrestrial invertebrate program for the Charles Darwin Foundation, a nonprofit group devoted to conserving the Galapagos. “They radiate out like an army,” she says of the ants, which wipe out everything in their path including eggs and vegetation. Increasing quarantine inspections would help combat the problem, but inspections have dropped 20% in the past five years as the government has committed less money, says Ms. Causton.

This isn’t the only problem, says Robert Bensted-Smith, a conservationist based in Quito, Ecuador, who for five years headed the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos. Many new settlers to the islands become commercial fishermen, fishing legally to supply the tourist trade or illegally for shark fins to send to Asia, all of which has an adverse impact on the marine ecosystem. Ships contribute to pollution, and their anchors damage the sea bottom. Solid-waste disposal creates dumps that can be breeding grounds for invasive species.

The threat comes despite the fact that Galapagos National Park, which encompasses more than 96% of the land on 19 islands, could serve as a textbook example of environmental consciousness. No tourist can set foot in the park without a guide, and groups are limited to 16 people. The ships that carry 100 passengers, the maximum allowed, have at least six or seven guides. Groups and their guides go ashore in separate inflatable boats, largely being kept out of each other’s way on land. On their morning and afternoon excursions, passengers have to stay on designated trails, with no toilet facilities and no smoking or eating allowed.

For tourists, no matter how much they’ve read about the Galapagos, it is astonishing to see animals, reptiles and birds that have no fear of humans. They will allow you to come right up to them, since they haven’t experienced humans as a threat. The guides rigidly enforce the rule of no interaction between visitors and wildlife — no feeding, no petting, no noises to get them to turn around and pose for a picture.

Park authorities are putting restrictions on islands that are being degraded by overuse. On Daphne Island, for instance, only one group of 16 visitors is allowed each month because the few trails erode easily.

Because of the restrictions, there is never a feeling of being overwhelmed by a flood of tourists as, for instance, at Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The stark volcanic islands, whose rugged trails sometimes require rock-hopping or balancing on slippery surfaces, provide a wilderness experience that isn’t marred by being part of a 100-passenger ship.

The ship I sailed on, Galapagos Explorer II, is the largest allowed in the islands and one of the most luxurious. These big cruise ships have come in for criticism from environmentalists for bringing a new type of tourist, more interested in luxury and in going to a trendy place.

But if the Explorer was an accurate indicator, any allegation that the passengers were more interested in cocktails on-deck than in Darwinism didn’t hold water. Some of the passengers were fanatics, attending onboard lectures day and night — with topics ranging from saving the oceans to the life of penguins. Armed with high-powered binoculars and guidebooks, the birdwatchers were a particularly hardy breed, sometimes picking out distant birds that the guides had missed.

And while the ship was certainly comfortable, the 6:30 a.m. daily wakeup call, the difficult hikes, and the absence of conventional cruise-ship entertainment like live music or nightclubs were hardly cushy. It presented an opportunity to devote each day to seeing and studying the Galapagos, and the ability to put aside all the usual distractions of daily life proved exhilarating.

Some environmentalists say President Correa’s declaration of imminent danger is a positive sign. The Correa government took over in January 2007 and hasn’t yet introduced any measures that directly affect tourists. But things are starting to change. The new governor of the Galapagos, known as a dedicated environmentalist, headed the national park for eight years.

Environmentalists say that the new Correa government — unlike previous administrations, where politics and corruption frequently stifled efforts to protect the islands — is showing a willingness to enforce existing regulations and consider new ones. “The government took ownership of the problems of the Galapagos, and this is making change possible,” says Mr. Bensted-Smith, the conservationist based in Quito.

Steps are now being taken to tighten quarantine procedures and to keep out illegal migrants, says Mr. Bensted-Smith. The government is discussing subjects that were formerly off limits, such as stopping local boat owners from selling their tourist licenses, which can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, to outsiders. The government is also considering doubling the entrance fee for the national park to $200 a person, which would provide more money for conservation activities.

But the biggest problem so far remains unsolved: what to do about the flood of tourists. “It’s not a simple solution, because to limit tourism will be to limit income,” says Mauricio Castillo, an official for Unesco in Quito. In addition to restricting the number of visitors, he says that ways to channel more tourist revenue to the local islanders are now being considered, as well as raising the costs of a Galapagos trip, so that higher prices will dampen tourist numbers but still provide enough revenue.

Some of the passengers on the Explorer were facing dilemmas of their own about visiting. Several of them said that they had traveled to the Galapagos this year specifically because of President Correa’s declaration.

“I’ve always wanted to come to the Galapagos,” said a German physician, who asked that his name not be used because he didn’t want to be painted as a villain. “We heard tourism will be restricted in the future, so we came now.”

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