Natural and Unnatural History III

I’m traveling in the Galapagos currently.  Hopefully I’m having fun and seeing great birds and other species!  In the meantime here’s a little of what I will hopefully be seeing!

The Galapagos’s Natural and Unnatural History: Human Impact

One of the many names given to the Galapagos, and my personal preference, the Enchanted Isles, evokes a images of a microcosm of Eden.  And much like Eden, the man is the demise of the garden.

The Enchanted Isles might seem an ironic or sarcastic name, given that the islands at first appear barren and inhospitable to the first human discovers lead by the Bishop of Panama, Fray Tomas de Berlanga in 1535.  (In truth, the island had been discovered much earlier, but that will the subject of a different post!)  He was not impressed.   In his recorded observations, he noted the tameness of the avifauna, and marvels over the tortoises and iguanas, themes to be repeated by travelers for the next ~450 years.  In 1570, the location was first charted onto maps.  By then, the islands had been named “Insule de los Galopegos” (Islands of the Tortoises) and the “Enchanatas” (Bewitched Islands).  In the 1800’s the islands also became known as “Archipielago del Ecuador” and “Archipielago del Colon”.  The islands themselves have Spanish and English names, typically one of each and a few more besides.

After the Bishop and the mapmaker sailed through, the islands became the retreat of pirates, then penal settlements for political prisoners, and prostitutes. (Not a word I’d ever imagine using on a birding blog, but there you have it.)  Though I suspect there may have been prostitutes during times of the pirates, but that’s sheer supposition.   Between the pirates and the prisoners, the whalers took over briefly, wrecking many a whale and tortoise population. (The tortoises were removed as food sources for the whalers).

Scientific exploration began in 1790, thus Darwin was not the first scientist to visit the Galapagos in 1835, just the first to realize what a gem it was.  Also, the maps made during Darwin’s travels were in use until the 1950s!

As each new wave of people came, they left their mark and changed the ecology.  The tameness of each species is noted by Darwin and others.  In fact, Darwin’s first notation regarding the finches named for him, regards the ease with which he killed one inquisitive finch who hopped up to investigate him.

Goats were introduced in 1813.  Also introduced to the island have been new species of birds, dogs, rats, pigs, and cats for a total of 36 vertebrate species.  To capture the enormity of the invasive forces at work:

  • A total of 36 vertebrate species  including 1 freshwater fish, 2 amphibians (frogs), 4 reptiles (all geckos), 10 birds, and 13 mammals. (Source)

  •  750 introduced plant species have been registered in Galapagos, with nearly 90% of them brought deliberately by humans for agricultural and ornamental purposes. The recent jump in the total number of introduced plants is more a result of increased interest in the problem coupled with more thorough surveys than of any exponential increase in the introduction rate. The majority of introduced plants are not overly invasive. (Source)

  • Approximately 543 alien insect species, more than 1/4 of the total insect fauna, have been registered in Galapagos. Most arrive in Galapagos on lumber, fruits and vegetables, and other organic material. The most serious threats to the Galapagos biota include two fire ant species, two wasp species, a scale insect, and an ectoparasitic fly.  (Source)

Each new species disrupts the balance among the present species.  Food is limited.  Thus bringing more guests to the table mean less food for those already present.  The same is true for other resources such as water, habitat, territory, etc.  These new species have no natural space in the ecosystem, thus they have no natural check to stymie their growth.

Humans are responsible for each of these introductions unintentional, well-meaning or otherwise.    The whalers removed 100,o00 tortoises during their stay.  During a two-month stay, one ship removed 5,o00 fur seals.

Much care has been taken in recent decades to limit human influence.  Invasive species are being eradicated, breeding programs are underway for tortoises, reintroduction programs are on-going, all sorts of scientists are out there watching, learning, restoring, and hoping.

However, a new trouble looms: tourism.  Even ecotourism, sustainable tourism, or conscious tourism isn’t enough.  While this type of tourism that looks at the impact of the tourism trade and seeks to limit the negative and expand the positive, has consequences. Each species, each individual has an impact, including each tourist.  That cannot be helped.  However the tourism industry, particularly for natural areas and remote regions continues to grow.   Cruise ships now visit the Galapagos, dramatically increasing the number of people visiting and the lure of building economies around tourism.  (Additionally on a sad note, with the growth of the sustainable tourism industry, there has been abuse of the labels by companies who recognize the profit in the labels.) In 2011, the Ecuadorian government attempted to limit cruise ship tourism:

  • “The rules [beginning February 1, 2012] will allow travellers to stay for a maximum of four nights and five days per ship, with a frequency of four landings within any 14-day period.” (Source)
  • The Galapagos receives 150,000 annual visitors yearly, mostly on  Isabela, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. (Source)
  • In 2012, 170,000 visits were made to the Galapagos. (Source)
  • Additionally, there is an allotted number of tourists allowed per day per island.  (Source)

Additional Reading:


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