Galápagos: Tour Through Time
Threats to the Islands
|Jorge Garcia guided us to Isla Fernandina, which has erupted several times in recent years.|
Ecuador's National Park Service shot all the goats on Isla Isabela several years ago, successfully eliminating 200,0000 "non-endemic" animals. According to our guide, Jorge, the first goats were brought in by sailors and have made survival hard for endemic species such as the 7,000 giant tortoises with which they compete for food. Jorge said that males were tagged with sensors, which then made it easy to find and shoot large groups of females from helicopters. Not pretty, but effective.
Nonetheless, the problem of "introduced" species continues to grow. According to the Galápagos Report 2006-2007, produced by two government agencies, more than half of the native plant and animal species are vulnerable or in some danger. Since 1990, the number of registered introduced species has grown from a little more than 100 to over 1,300.
Where do they come from? Well, at the airport, all of our luggage was screened. And every time we stepped aboard Alta, we hosed off our shoes and feet to avoid unintentionally transporting a tiny plant or animal from one island to the next. But the numbers tell the story: clearly humans are one of the most dangerous of "introduced" species in the archipelago. Since 2001, there's been a 59-percent increase in air passengers (Galápagos Report 2006-2007). Despite a freeze on the number of tour boats, larger ships have increased capacity by 72 percent in the last 15 years, and hotel capacity has almost doubled. The Galápagos Report 2006-2007 says that the number of visitors has grown from 40,000 to 145,000 between 1990 and 2006. And supporting the increased tourism, the local population has grown from 4,000 in the early 1970s to roughly 30,000 today.
Another problem is illegal fishing. We were repeatedly reminded not to buy any souvenirs made with black coral, shells, and sea urchins. During our first walk around Isla Genovesa, Jorge spoke passionately about the Ecuadorian government's lack of funding to protect the islands. The islands are 97 percent national park, and the waters are 100-percent marine reserve, but, he said, there's only one government patrol boat for the entire reserve-and, as with many institutions in the islands, it relies on funds donated by such groups as the Galápagos Conservancy (www.galapagos.org).
Jorge also said that the new president, Rafael Correa, recently decided to permit shark hunting elsewhere in Ecuador. Although shark hunting isn't permitted in the Galápagos, Jorge said that illegal fishing in the marine reserve has increased now that there's a market for shark.