It’s the year 1807 and an Irish man by the name Patrick Watkins drops the anchor of his boat by the shore of an exotic looking island and navigates his tugboat to the beach. When he gets there, he is surrounded by gentle and wonderfully friendly wildlife.
He stays on that island for a further 2 years surviving off the native plants and taking advantage of the welcoming, friendly nature of the tame animals that pass his way, he then goes to mainland Ecuador and tells of his experiences and his enjoyment of these islands and as a result more and more people visit the islands.
The islands were a delicate and remote world built up of intricate ecosystems and habitats where millions of species have had to evolve to survive so far away from other life.
Now, fast forward 204 years to present day where the Galapagos Islands are over run by tourism and scores of mainland settlers which has resulted in many of the large numbers of species being at risk of extinction. In just over 200 years, the human population has grown from 1 person to approximately 20,000 and its ever increasing; such saturation will surely be the downfall of this veritable paradise.
Tourism numbers have soared from just a few thousand visitors in the 1960’s to over 60,000 per year in 2010.The main attraction for tourists is the wonderful individuality of the islands; they are a rare volcanic archipelago that was formed around 10 million years ago over the intersection of three tectonic plates, making the islands a hot spot for volcanic activity and therefore a hotspot for tourists.
Another reason for an influx of tourists is due to Charles Darwin, he famously carried out research for ‘The Origin of Species’ on the islands. There are now Charles Darwin centres around the islands and many visit solely to look at his work and the animals he used to come to his theory. Sarah Darwin, his great granddaughter spoke about the adverse effect of tourism. She stated that “The fine tuned ecosystem which supports this amazing wildlife that the visitors come to see, are now being threatened directly or indirectly through tourism.”
The native animals, such as the sea lions and giant tortoises shown, are so tame they have no fear of humans.
Travellers and pirates took advantage of this by catching the slow moving animals and used them for food and oil. Tortoises made perfect ship food as they could survive up to 2 months without food or water. This exploitation of the animals led to a near extinction and in the past few weeks, the Galapagos said goodbye to the last giant tortoise dubbed ‘Lonely george.’ I had the pleasure of meeting George, and his very sad demise is a huge loss to the island.
The main problem for the Galapagos islands is the introduction of alien species. Pirates and travellers many years ago not only killed and stole the indiginous wildlife they also brought dogs, goats, rats and other animals to the islands which killed off many flora and fauna.
Although the islands were made a ‘World Heritage Site’ in 1978, It is estimated that tourists carry at least two new species a day onto the islands and although government regulations meant a huge (controvercial) eradication of goats. Dogs and cats still run wild and stray which lead to many plants and animals still being destroyed.
Volunteers and conservationalists work hard to extinguish the invasive species and help to repair the delicate environment which has been ruined by mans eploitation. I was fortunate to participate in the cleansing of the island, and spent some time at the Jatun Sacha Foundation earlier this year which is located on San Cristobal Island. The main duties were cutting back the fast growing ‘mora’, known to us as the blackberry, an invasive species which has completely overrun and consumed the native plant life. After cutting back the Mora, we planted endemic species, in an attempt to bring back parity.
Jatun Sacha promotes on its website that ‘the reserve is dedicated to eradicate invasive species of plants, especially a type of invasive raspberry, in order to plant native trees and vegetation.’
Elinor Childs, a lawyer from London who also volunteered at the foundation stated “What concerns me is that we spent hours chopping back Mora, to a point, however the roots are virtually impossible to remove, and as a result, will obviously regenerate.” The lack of expertise and local education in these matters makes the cleansing a highly laborious and in some ways thankless task. “It would be good to get more locals involved, and it would be nice if I felt that a substantial amount of the money each of us paid to various volunteer organizations (GVI, i2i etc) actually went to Jatun Sacha so they could have more full time employees and pay them a decent wage.”
Big volunteer organizations whose aims are supposedly to help the Galapagos regain its protected environment, were pocketing most of the money that should have been going to locals to educate about the problems in the Galapagos. For every £1000 given to a group, only about £100 goes to the Galapagos Islands.
Kati Beckfeld, another volunteer specified that the she felt her work was valuable to the islands but her money wasn’t used wisely by the organizations, it should go to the islands and people who live there.
Sarah Sturrock, a medical student and another helper at Jatun Sacha said that the money she spent going there could have paid for twice as many locals to cut the Mora for a longer period of time but she wanted to experience the Galapagos for herself and thinks the experience was worth it.
The residents on the islands benefit little from all the volunteers that help, some of the money does go towards educating the locals about conservation and conservation itself but most manages to find its way back to the big companies’ pockets.
Tourism generates income for the local people there but they don’t see a lot of the money as most tourists come on cruise ships and money is spent onboard instead of on the islands.
The goverment have capped the number of visitors to the islands each year to try and help sustain the environment but the local people heavily rely on tourism, without it, they wouldnt be able to live the way they do on the islands, it really is now a catch 22 situation.
“Tourism is a problem because the eco-system there is so vulnerable and of course the more people that go there, the more problems that arise.” Rupert Parry, a fellow volunteer said. He agrees that the number of visitors needed to be capped.
In addition, the number of residents should also be restricted, as more and more local people tell their family on the mainland to come and work for them, this ruins vital ecosystems and creates more waste to get rid of.
Simon Jewetzeluf, who i met when traveling around the islands stated that “There are some local people and places that have preserving the nature as a main goal but its a horrible site when you walk through the towns, you might stumble upon a pile of garbage and it makes you think, what am i doing this for?”
As David Attenborough once stated tourism is a ‘necessary evil’ on these islands. Tourists provide the local residents with jobs and some of the money that goes to the government is used towards conservation and managing numbers of foreign species, however, the risks to the island seem too high and visitors should be restricted to one visit a lifetime.