Galápagos: A fragile paradise
Galápagos Islands, Ecuador—Upon arriving in these islands on the other side of the Pacific, a thousand kilometers off the coast of South America, I felt as if I did not just travel across the ocean, but also through time—with penguins, tortoises, cacti and marine iguanas all evoking a primeval paradise.
In Puerto Ayora and Puerto Villamil—two of the islands’ towns—sea lions would loiter on the streets, and the finches would come so close that there’s no need for binoculars to appreciate the variable features that inspired Charles Darwin to write his theory of evolution.
The animals do not fear humans because they have nothing to fear.
Subsequent boat trips to the other islands would only increase my sense of awe and wonder.
As the blue-footed boobies danced in Seymour Norte, as the sharks passed underneath me off Isla Isabela, and as I gazed at the otherworldly landscapes of Isla Bartolome, it dawned on me that this is what the world must have looked like before humans came to the picture.
It’s been a week since I arrived and the sense of awe and wonder lingers.
Even so, I have encountered other emotions—within myself or in other people—upon visiting the islands and learning more about their ecological history.
First, there is the sense of distress over the devastation humanity has wrought over the centuries.
Uninhabited until the advent of European colonialism in the Americas, Galápagos would see its tortoises and seals decimated by sailors who hunted them for food and fur.
The indirect impacts of human beings have been more consequential.
For instance, the introduction of invasive species from goats to guavas has driven some fauna and flora to near-extinction.
Overtourism, too, is a concern.
On one hand, visits are restricted to certain sites, most requiring supervision by professional guides, and tourism sustains the park through the revenue and creation of jobs for locals who would otherwise engage in fishing or farming.
However, the growing footprint of the tourist economy is also taking its environmental toll.
Not all of the 275,000 annual tourists (and the 30,000 residents) respect the rules, and plastic bottles floating by the shore is not an uncommon sight.
The oil spill just last week serves as a grim reminder of the islands’ myriad other threats; in 2001, a much larger spill of 660,000 liters of diesel and fuel oil killed thousands of iguanas and countless other creatures.
With many species sensitive to the slightest changes in land and ocean temperatures, climate change is a clear and present danger—to say nothing of rising sea levels.
Meanwhile, there’s also the sense of indifference.
At first, I wanted to take a picture of every iguana and sea lion I saw, but eventually, the novelty is diminished, and they become part of the landscape.
If a week is all it takes for a traveler to get desensitized to the sight of wonderful creatures, what can a lifetime do?
While the locals I meet profess enduring fascination and affection for the animals, economic considerations can surely get in the way.
Finally, however, there is also a sense of hope, based on what humans can accomplish.
“The islands are very different now—we are running mostly on renewables and people are educated about the environment,” David, a hiking guide and Galápagueño, told me, sharing the success of the Galápagos National Park and conservationists in promoting sustainability efforts, eliminating invasive species, and saving endangered ones.
The giant tortoise in Isla Española, for instance, came very close to extinction in 1964, with only two males and 12 females left, but thanks to a breeding program run by the Charles Darwin Foundation, there are now over 1,000 tortoises in the island.
Another giant tortoise species, not seen for over a century, was spotted last year in Isla Fernandina—yet another encouraging sign that all is not lost.
Humans may have rendered evolution obsolete, but we may yet contribute to the survival not of the fittest, but of the most fragile.
Who knows what good we may yet do for the planet if we set our greed and politics aside?
The latest science points to monumental challenges if we are to avert a grim future, but of all the emotions I have encountered in my stay here, what I would like to take with me are those of wonder and hope.
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