Tourists meet Tortoise. Credit Brian Merchant
Yesterday Brian wrote Galapagos Islands Moved Off Endangered Sites List, concluding:
If anything, the problems have only grown more complex and fundamental -- there's now a growing island population that must learn to live sustainably with severely limited resources, and a bevy of threats from other invasive species remain at large.
Three TreeHuggers, Brian Merchant, myself and founder Graham Hill have been to the Galapagos in three consecutive years, and we all concur, this is still a site in danger.
Brian accompanied 30 teachers on a trek across the Galapagos in 2008 and wrote:
We not only got a front row seat to some of the most stunning biological wonders of the world (like the huge marine iguanas pictured above), but received a portrait of a very endangered ecosystem--and the many forces fighting for and against its survival.
See his slideshow here.
First colonized in the 1930's, the initial population of the Galapagos was largely sustainable. In the late 1950's the Galapagos were made a national park, and the 97 percent of the Galapagos that remained unsettled was cut off from development by law. But the population continued to grow. In 1978, the islands were declared a world heritage site. But, as I noted in an earlier look at the Galapagos, a combination of intruding non-native species, the burgeoning number of residents, water management problems, and constant tourism have led to its being moved to the World Heritage Endangered Sites list.
More in TreeHugger
Nearly all of the Galapagos' current problems can be traced back to its booming tourism. There are the immediate impact problems--for instance, tourists use more water and take more and longer showers, according to Professor Keller of UCSB's Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.
That lucrative industry attracts hopeful workers, which increases the general ecological impact: water management is now a huge issue, goats and pigs introduced as livestock are now decimating the natural ecosystems, and waste management and recycling programs need updating.
It's the familiar ol' equation: pristine natural habitat + more people = bad news.
More in TreeHugger
As part of my effort to recap the rather amazing journey I recently completed with some of our nation's top educators, I thought another image gallery was in order. From mingling with stingrays to examining dead tropical penguins to engaging Galapagos students in the classroom, here are the photos I feel best define the trek.
In the end, Brian has to ask the question that every Galapagos tourist should ask.
Should an environmentalist visit the Galapagos?
From a die-hard ecologist's standpoint, the unequivocal answer is simple:
Tourism invites hordes of people to trample over the delicate island ecosystems, the ever-growing industry attracts migrant workers to join an already unsustainable population which combined with the gaggle of visitors usurps the Galapagos' limited resources. Not to mention the extensive fossil fuel-frying air travel you'll most likely have to undertake to get here.
And yet--show me a naturalist who claims he wouldn't love to see firsthand the rampant biodiversity that inspired Darwin, and I'll show you a flaming-pants liar.
Herein lies our conflict. More in TreeHugger
I visited the Galapagos exactly a year ago; I was in Ecuador and felt that I was so close that I had to go, even if it was just for a day or two. It was probably the most un-treehugger thing I have ever done; it is a long way from Quito, and then you have to get from the airport on Isla Baltra to other islands.
But I saw enough to see that this was no pristine national park. Those famous Galapagos tortoises can no longer breed in the wild; introduced animals like dogs, goats, even ants go after the eggs. They have to be raised in breeding centers now.
It isn't just tourism that is changing the Galapagos, either. Ecuador is a very poor country with a very rich upper class, thanks to the oil business. Quito has some lovely shopping and fancy residential districts, and Isabela Island, that I flew into on a small plane, has a pretty new airport and a runway that can take jets; you can see a private jet to the left as we land.
Somehow this national park with strict development rules, no fuel that isn't imported and little water has room for some very lovely second homes.
It may well be that real estate development becomes as big a threat to the Galapagos as tourism.
See the Slideshow Are the Galapagos Being Regreened?
TreeHugger founder Graham Hill was part of the Mission Blue Voyage put on by TED earlier in the month, and had a chance to get up close with the famous iguanas and sea lions of the Galapagos. He agrees that it is crazy to say that these islands are no longer under threat.
Keep the Galapagos on the World Heritage Committee's Endangered Sites List
Exploration in Amazonian Ecuador
You cannot separate what is happening there from the circumstances in the rest of Ecuador. The government has two sources of income: Oil and tourism. We have seen in posts like Ecuador Says Show Me the Money, Or the Rainforest Gets It and in our slideshow A Look at the Napo Wildlife Center in Amazonia that the government is perfectly willing to compromise Amazonian Ecuador to squeeze a few more barrels of oil out to generate foreign exchange.
As Brian noted, "The 'Sites in Danger' designation is important because it focuses international attention -- and often much-needed funding -- on threatened places." That attention is needed now, more than ever, to prevent the economic pressures of the present from causing the sacrifice of the Galapagos' future.
More on the Galapagos from TreeHugger:
A star-studded group of adventurers with the Mission Blue oceans conservation group went on a trip to the Galapagos earlier this month. But the true stars of the show were the incredible species endemic to the islands: many endangered or vulnerable, and all wonderfully unique.
More in TreeHugger