The volcanic nature of the islands means many rare and prehistoric animals can be found here (Photo: Flickr, Derek Keats)
The Galápagos are an isolated group of volcanic islands off Ecuador’s Pacific coast and they boast one of the most unique ecosystems on Earth. The remarkable biodiversity of this environment inspired Charles Darwin to begin his ‘Theory of Evolution’ during the voyage of The Beagle in 1831 and to this day, the islands enthral scientists and tourists alike. The islands are so unique because they are home to many species of animals which are not found anywhere else in the world and therefore environmentalists must work effortlessly to minimize the human footprint whilst still allowing visitors to experience the extraordinary wildlife.
The world held its breath when, in February this year, a ship containing hazardous materials and oil ran aground in the Galápagos Islands. Global attention was focussed on the strained efforts to prevent the oil leaking into the surrounding waters and destroying the delicate ecosystem of the Naufragio Bay. It was the third ship this year to pose a threat to this spectacular environment, so I decided to explore what makes these islands so unusual — and how locals and tourists can aid in their protection.
What makes them so special?
As the Galápagos Islands are so remote, they shelter a fragile yet astonishing ecosystem where even endangered animals can survive and breed. Puerto Egas on the Santiago Island displays a flat and incredibly long, black lava shoreline, where masses of fur sea lions lounge on the eroded caves and lava pools. Visitors to Tortuga Bay can witness prehistoric marine iguanas, Galápagos crabs, pelicans and flamingos on this pristinely preserved stretch of beach. Furthermore, the largest seabird on earth — the waved albatross — breed solely on the Española Island. If you dare scale up the Sierra Negra volcano which last erupted in 2005, you will be rewarded by spotting short-eared owls, finches and hawks amongst an abundance of other topical and distinct birds.
Fur sea lions are a sight to see on the Galápagos Islands. (Photo: Flickr, Derek Keats)
Locals and biologists both understand how important a role the natural environment plays in keeping the balance needed to uphold this range of biodiversity. Extensive manmade developments — initiated to keep up with the thriving tourist trade — along with the rising levels of poaching, endangers the survival of some of these almost extinct creatures.
So what needs protecting?
The number of giant tortoises recorded on the island highlights both the successes and failures of the island’s efforts to save their endangered species. “Lonesome George” for example — a name coined by the American newspapers in the 1970’s — was the last Pinta tortoise, discovered after decades of believing that the species was extinct. The world mourned the passing of George in June 2012, as it marked the eradication of another kind, destroyed by human interference. George, who was over 100 years old, was considered the rarest creature in the world after the Pinta tortoises’ habitat was destroyed by goats brought on ships by whalers and sealers. The remaining sub-species of giant tortoises in the Galápagos are not only a main attraction for tourists, but the subjects of a tireless campaign from conservationists to increase breeding and thus their survival.
Galápagos Penguins are the second smallest type of penguin on Earth, and inhabit the Bartolomé Island. The recorded number of these penguins has dropped from 15,000 in 1982 to 500 in the present day, thus the small breeding colony found behind Pinnacle Rock are fiercely protected by groups such as the Galápagos Conservancy.
Iguanas are a prominent and popular draw for tourists. Found on various of the islands, these prehistoric creatures are a high priority for conservationists — to sustain their natural environment and limit disturbance to their breeding. Biologists learnt their lesson when The Baltra iguana became extinct in the 1950’s, and are therefore determined to preserve the remaining sub-species.
No laughing matter: the number of giant tortoises on the islands is decreasing. (Photo: Flickr, Paul Krawczuk)
How are they being protected?
Organisations such as the Galápagos Conservancy, The Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galápagos National Park work tirelessly in unison to protect the wildlife of these islands. Private sponsors provide the financial support for marine conservation projects and ecosystem regeneration to restore healthy habitats for their endangered residents.
Exploring the Dafne Major Island requires the presentation of a special permit, which limits the human footprint and tourist tread on the landscape. At Tortuga Bay you must sign in and out at specific checkpoints between 6am and 6pm, which controls tourist traffic and even forbids swimming in certain parts of the bay.
How can I travel safely and affordably?
Luckily, it is tourists with a love of animals that are usually the main visitors to the Galápagos Islands and therefore most do respect the caution that must be taken. Multiple companies offer cruises around the islands which provide access to view many spectacular species in their natural habitat from a safe distance. Snorkelling in controlled areas such as the Cerro Brujo beach allows a harmless way to interact with marine life.
Volunteering for organisations such as FUNDAR is an ideal way to experience the islands cheaply, and with the opportunity to directly aid the preservation of the animals. On the San Cristobal Island, volunteers can contribute towards a native species’ reforestation programme through the company Hacienda Tranquilla.
I’ve discovered that authorities have learnt from the past how serious and strict they must be to keep this precious landscape from losing any more precious animals. Sustaining a pure, natural environment is a near impossible challenge in the modern world, and with urban development projects on the rise, conservationists are under more pressure than ever. If you get the chance to visit these extraordinary islands, do, as it may be your last chance to witness some of the most endangered species on Earth.