Retracing Darwin's Steps, and Managing the Human Impact on the Galapagos Islands
When considering history, it's important not to get too stuck on just looking at what's already behind you. All photos credit: Collin Dunn
The difference between visiting the islands largely untouched by humans and those once habited by people is pretty stark. After seeing the pristine, un-invaded island of Fernadina, we stopped in Egas Port, on the island of Santiago, to retrace a few of Darwin's steps, and see what can happen when humans have a hand in writing the natural history of the Galapagos.
This lighthouse is one of the enduring reminders of the human footprint in the islands.
Darwin stopped in Egas Bay 175 years ago -- Bartolome, our first stop as we cruised around the islands, was named after one of Darwin's mates on the Beagle -- and the human history has grown from there. The first heavy use of the island didn't happen until 1920, when some Norwegian fisherman came to extract oil from fish and tortoises. Most of them left in about 1925; some went back to Norway, while the others moved to join the growing population on Santa Cruz.
All settlers, in fact, have followed a similar path: Everybody starts at the coast, since that's the most easily accessed part of an island; they move to the highlands when they find that there isn't enough freshwater in most places; and end back near the coast, in ports, as fishing and industry concentrate there. The intrepid Mr. Egas (for whom the port is named), who came to Santiago from Guayakil, on Ecuador's mainland, emigrated to the islands to mine salt. He later returned to the mainland, but built houses here first.
The Ecuadorian government also found Egas Port to be a desirable-looking location, and started to build a village at Egas Port in 1965. Unfortunately, they didn't do enough homework, and found that there wasn't sufficient freshwater to sustain a population, so abandoned the project with just one house that still (mostly) stands today.
The Beach Morning Glory is one of the few flowering plants on the islands that sports a color other than white or yellow.
All of these factors have contributed to the state of the island today. It's a very beautiful place, formed by layers and layers of volcanic ash; it's unique composition made it the first place we saw green grass in the islands. It's also pretty dry, generally -- part of the reason that settlement in 1965 failed -- so there are many cactus interspersed among the green grasses. We also saw one of the few flowering plants that produces a color other than yellow or white -- the Beach Morning Glory, with beautiful purple flowers.
The wildlife is also striking and fun to watch. Sea lions are plentiful, along with Marine iguanas and Galapagos doves, a bird endemic to these islands. Combined with more Holly Lightfoot crabs and Darwin finches than you can count, and it's a pretty dynamic place.
The ani is a big threat to the Galapagos' many bird species.
It's also under threat from a handful of invaders; few are worse than the ani. The black, raven-like bird with a big, curved beak, was introduced to the islands by man between 40 and 45 years ago. Farmers were having pest problems with their livestock, and observed the ani eating the bugs who were pestering their cows, and decided to bring them in to do the same. Over four decades later, the ani is pushing out the native finches, mockingbirds, and doves, with no eradication plan in sight.
The Galapagos dove, endemic to the islands, is under threat from a human-related cause.
So humankind's footprint looms large here, from Darwin's (in a mostly good way) on down, where the track record is a little more varied. But, just like back on Santa Cruz, humans are working hard to try to reverse some of the damage. "I think it's working," our naturalist guide, Jose, tells me, and he'd know as well as anyone. He's certified to lead and teach groups all about the islands, and there wasn't a question he couldn't answer over the four days we spent with him, from the impact El Nino will have on the islands to how to tell the difference between fur seals and sea lions.
It's clear that the human footprint will never be wiped clean from here, which is a big part of prioritizing and managing the ongoing conservation efforts on the islands; the human history here has forever altered the landscape and the plants and animals that call it home. Still, it isn't as easy as saying, "That's it, clear all the people out and don't let them back," since the human race made the mess, we need to help clean it up -- the ani would eventually take over most or all of the bird habitat on this island if left unchecked, and that wouldn't do anybody any good. Like it or not, we humans aren't going away for a while, and by accepting that, and incorporating it into preservation and restoration work, we show that we're learning from our mistakes.
Humans may not be able to keep everything they touch pristine, but there's value in that touching process -- education, research, recreation, and so forth -- and that balance is what the Galapagos will have to find if it's going to continue to serve all of those purposes. If Jose is right, they're headed in the correct direction.
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What is Really Being Done to Save the Galapagos?
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