Is enough being done to save the Giant Tortoises? Photo credit: Collin Dunn
Conservation efforts, especially in places as renowned as the Galapagos, have something of a reputation. It's developers vs. protesters, consumers vs. conservationists, people vs. animals. Thanks to a lecture by Ros Cameron, who works at the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) on Santa Cruz island in the Galapagos, we can see it's lot, lot, lot more complex than that. So, with that as a given, what's actually being done now to save the Galapagos?
Photo credit: Collin Dunn
Given the increasing tug-of-war going on between different factions in the Galapagos, it's perhaps unsurprising that there are some fabulous success stories, and some pervasive, ongoing challenges that are faced by those working to help preserve the islands. CDRS is one of the more prominent groups trying to do so. Started in 1964 (five years after the founding of the Charles Darwin Foundation), the Research Station exists to produce information that the government can use to protect the Galapagos.
It's only been over the past 20 years or so that the Galapagos really required protection from people. The islands weren't human-friendly for a long time, and only with advances like the creation of roads (and importation of cars) did the population (and tourism) really begin to increase. Under varied and increasing threats, the Station went forward with a simple idea: The best way to protect the Galapagos is to understand it.
How Do You Conserve Such a Unique Place?
They use a holistic approach as they attempt to gain more understanding. For example, they are less interested reacting with treatment when one of the islands' 13 species of Darwin finch are dying without explanation, and more interested in learning how to eradicate avian disease from the islands. The "Save the ____" (tortoises, whales, fill in your own blank) approach is useful when the movement needs a mascot, but it just doesn't make any sense to concentrate all efforts on one species, or a set of species, just to send them back into the same environment where they were pushed to the brink by invasive and other unsolved environmental problems.
That approach also means that they believe that ecosystem and biodiversity conservation actively involve the people who live around the park, and, in many cases, who are responsible for introducing non-native and invasive species to the island. For better or worse, there has been a human presence here on the islands for over 500 years, and a population here for over 100; people are forever ingrained in this place, and leaving them out of a comprehensive conservation plan is pretty silly and shortsighted.
Still, the big difference between 1959, when the Foundation was founded, and today, is that there are more people here. More residents, more tourists, more everything. Because the National Park is so aggressively protected, that means really big changes going on in the towns and population centers themselves, and, even though they aren't included in the Park, that doesn't mean that they won't have an impact there.
These hungry, hungry baby tortoises represent part of the ongoing conservation efforts at the Station. Photo credit: Collin Dunn
A Mixed Bag of Conservation Success Stories
The good news is that the Research Center has helped the Foundation make some pretty big strides in conservation. Much of the charismatic megafauna -- the larger, popular, (sometimes) photogenic species -- is on the rebound. Both tortoises and iguanas, for example, now have stable populations when it wasn't clear either would make it. That's great, and it means that these sorts of "flagship" species will be around as icons of the Galapagos for a long time to come.
These success stories are a mixed bag. While measures have been taken to prevent the further importation of big (animal-sized) invasive species -- each bag is screened by x-ray when it comes through the islands, and many are inspected by hand -- it's much more difficult to keep viruses and microbes from making it through the airport. The increased growth in the towns means an increased availability of transporters and carries, while the organisms residing in the National Park can't adapt quickly enough to resist them.
And, mistakes in oversight happen: Ros told us someone recently managed to sneak a giant African snail onto the Islands (and now into the Park). It's incredibly invasive, and is threatening the indigenous land snail. For anyone who might be saying to themselves, "So what? It's a snail," consider this: The land snail, though small, and slow, has shown more adaptive characteristics than any other organism living in the Galapagos. That's right, these snails, and not Darwin finches, are the best example of evolution that exists in the world. We ought to try to keep them around.
Can the Galapagos Be Conserved?
This is a tough question. There have been some good success stories, but myriad challenges remain. Both Ros and the guides on this trip have noted an increase in "checklist tourists," who come here because they heard it was amazing (which is definitely true) but who aren't interested in getting much out of the trip, other than just checking it off the list. They don't research the islands' history before they come, they aren't sure what they're here to see, and they leave largely unchanged.
A further increase in this activity really threatens the Galapagos. The National Park rules are strict, but not unenforceable. Nefarious (or just selfish, or thoughtless) visitors can break the rules, sneaking away for a guide for a quick side trip off the trail, maybe damaging sea turtle eggs along the way, or can't resist the temptation to touch an animal, or grab a rock or fossil or plant to take home.
On the other hand, the Galapagos needs the right kind of advocates. Those who can experience it, and then effect the change they feel from being in such an amazing and unique place, and that's what the International Teacher Program is doing here. Each of the 24 teachers will go back to their lives and schools with a very different outlook on the world, and especially this part of the world. Conscious tourism, or eco-tourism, or sustainable tourism (or whatever you want to call it) alone isn't going to really preserve anything -- all human impact is going to have an impact -- but replacing conscious tourists with "checkbox tourists" is a pretty good place to start. I'm learning that, with the right group, with those sustainable goals in mind, a little time in the Galapagos can make a lifetime of difference.
24 of the top teachers in the U.S. have been chosen to go to the Galapagos Islands, with the Toyota International Teacher Program. The program is designed to engage a variety of conservation and education issues that the teachers can then give back to their students and communities. I'm traveling along with them to report on the trip's experiences and lessons. Follow the teachers personal experiences over at the Toyota International Teacher Program wiki to learn more.
More on the Galapagos
5 Things Everyone Should Know About the Galapagos: An Introduction
Should The Galapagos Be Taken Off The Endangered Sites List?
Weird and Wonderful Galapagos Wildlife Worth Saving (Slideshow)