Conservation efforts and institutions that protect the Galapagos Islands
The Islas Galapagos (official Spanish name of the Islands), as they came to be known in nearby South America after their discovery, had enjoyed millions of years of isolation in the Pacific Ocean until one fateful day in 1535. Almost completely by accident, a Panamanian priest called Fray Tomas Berlanga stumbled across the islands when his ship was blown off course on the way to Peru.
From the moment of their discovery, the Islas Galapagos were never to be the same again. The unique and tame wildlife described by the Fray was subjected to hundreds of years of destruction and decimation by hungry pirates and greedy whalers. The natural balance of the islands was irreversibly affected forever.
However, the isolated and unique evolution of the Islas Galapagos still held many secrets, which were to prove vital in the research of British scientist Charles Darwin in the 19th century. What he discovered there was fundamental to his theory of evolution, one of the most important discoveries in the history of science.
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As a result of Darwin’s work, interest in the islands increased. Following the publication of a book by American naturalist William Beebe called ‘Galapagos: World’s End’ in the 1930s, the first laws were decreed to protect the islands. However, these laws were difficult to enforce and had little effect.
It wasn’t until 1959, on the 100th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s original thesis on evolution, ‘The Origin of the Species’, that the world finally woke up to the need to protect these remarkable islands. The Charles Darwin Foundation was established and the Islas Galapagos were finally afforded official protection under the Ecuadorian national park system.
Since then the islands have been well-protected by a loyal team of conservationists. The environment is maintained and protected as much as possible from the harmful effects of man, for the first time since they were discovered half a millennia ago.
Regulations applied to visitors of the Galapagos National Park
The Galapagos Islands are one of the most magical places on earth. Here animals live without fear and do not run away from visitors. To maintain the uniqueness of the Galapagos Islands the National Park Service has developed rules to aid in the preservation.
Guides explain and enforce these rules making sure that visitors stay together on marked paths and respect the follow the other park service regulations:
- No plant, animal, or remains of such (including shells, bones, and pieces of wood), or other natural objects should not be removed or disturbed.
- Be careful not to transport any live material to the islands, or from island to island.
- Do not take any food to the uninhabited islands, for the same reason.
- Do not touch or handle the animals.
- Do not feed the animals. It can be dangerous to you, and in the long run, would destroy the animals’ social structure and breeding habits.
- Do not startle or chase any animal from its resting or nesting spot.
- Stay within the areas designated as visiting sites.
- Do not leave any litter on the islands, or throw any off your boat.
- Do not deface the rocks.
- Do not buy souvenirs or objects made of plants or animals from the islands.
- Do not visit the islands unless accompanied by a licensed National Park Guide.
- Restrict your visits to officially approved areas.
- Show your conservationist attitude.
Located in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island main scientific authority
The Charles Darwin Research Station conducts and facilitates research in the Galápagos Islands and the Galápagos Marine Resources Reserve of Ecuador. The Darwin Station is part of the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galápagos Islands, an international non-profit organization dedicated to scientific research in the Galápagos Islands since 1959.The Darwin Station provides:
- Information and technical assistance for the Galápagos National Park Service and other branches of the government of Ecuador.
- Support for resident and visiting scientists who work in the Galápagos.
- Environmental education for island communities and schools and for the visitors that come to Galápagos each year.
- Hands-on training in science, education, and conservation for Ecuadorian university students who participate in the Darwin Station’s volunteer and scholarship programs.
- The Charles Darwin Foundation grew out of a project housed in the Smithsonian Institute for over twenty years and was launched as an independent entity in late 1992 with the blessing and cooperation of the Smithsonian Institute.
- CDF, Inc. is responsible for raising funds to support projects in Galápagos related to the conservation mandate of the Charles Darwin Foundation and is a logistical base in the U.S. for projects and programs in the Galápagos. The CDF, Inc. also conducts seminars, briefings, and other public education and advocacy efforts to inform the general public about conservation issues and current work being undertaken in the Galápagos.
Galapagos Islands conservation entities
With a constantly changing environmental, political and commercial situation in the Galapagos, and an environment so unique it’s not found anywhere else on earth, the need for conservation is urgent and ongoing.
The Charles Darwin Foundation, Inc.
The oldest private scientific research institution in the islands, the Charles Darwin Foundation has been working in the Galapagos since 1959.
Their goal is to provide the decision-makers with the scientific knowledge that they need to make the best possible conservation policies for the islands.
The Charles Darwin Research Station
The research station, located in Puerto Ayora, is the main operations center for the Charles Darwin Foundation.
It is here that most of their projects are based, although, with over 50 land and marine conservation projects active at any one time, their work is carried out in various locations across the islands.
The Galapagos Conservation Trust
The Galapagos Conservation Trust is a British registered charity set up in 1995 to raise awareness of the need for conservation in the Galapagos.
Affiliated to the Charles Darwin Foundation and a member of the international network of Friends of the Galapagos, the Conservation Trust continues to raise money to fund vital land and marine conservation in the islands.
The Galapagos Coalition
Made up of a dedicated group of biologists, scientists, and lawyers with expertise in environmental and international law, the Galapagos Coalition works to understand the relationship between the conservation of the Galapagos Islands and human activities.
By promoting responsible eco-travel, habitat preservation, and marine conservation, these organizations play a vital roll in maintaining the precious environment of the Galapagos, while also ensuring that the islands remain a viable source of sustainable economy for the communities who live here.
Named after the famous scientist visit
Of course, a delicate world that has created itself in such a remote and isolated realm is a delicate system. Human interruption and introduction easily disturb such a delicate laboratory – such an intricate system that took millions of years to evolve to survive in what might seem the least likely of places.
There are a plethora of environmental problems plaguing the islands, some stemming from the pressures of world climate changes such El Niño (ENSO), others arising from commercial fishing, and overpopulation, and many resulting from the introduction of species by humans dating back to the 1800’s. Another big problem the Galapagos Islands had to face was a big oil spill in 2001.
The global weather anomaly hit the Galapagos hard. While an entirely natural occurrence, the weather pattern took a vital part of the ecosystem out of the chain. Many fish searched for different waters to feed upon. The fur seals were most greatly affected as they depend on the fish closer to the surface. The surface waters were heated more during the attacks of El Niño, and the fur seals between ages 1-4 were virtually all wiped out. El Niño also affected coastal birds. The absence of fish in the coastal waters meant that many of the traditional nest areas for birds were abandoned.
While this unforgiving and uncontrollable force of nature has had a destructive impact on the Galapagos, many of the environmental issues facing the Galapagos originate from a potentially controllable source –human beings. The presence of people in the Islands has two sources: migration from the mainland and tourism.
- Migration and Hawaiianization: Hoping to find work, people from mainland Ecuador have literally invaded the Islands. The Galapagos population has increased over 300% in the past few decades. The 1990 census marks the population at 9,735. Today, more than 20,000 people live on the Islands. The population is doubling every eleven years, which means that there will be 40,000 people on the Galapagos Islands by 2014. This affects the archipelago in a number of means. Aside from the pressure put on the natural resources, this large growth means that most of the garbage is dumped in an open-air site and burned with no sort of treatment or separation.
- Tourism: For decades, tourists have marveled at the rich flora and fauna of the Galapagos. Despite the high prices, the stream of visitors has never broken off. In the sixties, there have been about 1,000 tourists per year, whereas there have been approximately 80,000 visitors in 2001. A second airport was built and the construction of a third one is under discussion. The park service does a remarkable job of regulating the licensing of guides, as well as designating low-impact landing sites. The National Park charges a $100 entrance fee on foreign tourists, yet receives only 25% of that. Nevertheless, the park has to deal with the conservation problems that motor yachts and their trash bring to the island.
- Over-fishing: Recently, overfishing or illegal fishing has become a large issue. When migrants do not find work in tourism, they often find jobs in the fishing industry. The sea cucumber and sharks of the Galapagos have become alarming targets, both popular in Asian markets for their aphrodisiac or medicinal qualities. Due to the alarming decrease in the early 1990’s an Executive Decree enforced by the National Park service banned all fishing of sea cucumbers in the Galapagos. Fishermen were not filled with enthusiasm. Although the ban has been replaced by a quota, there has continuously been strikes on the part of the fishermen. Only recently, in April 2004, angry fishermen besieged the Charles Darwin Station and demanded the right to use greater nets and longer lines. The seizure ended with an agreement signed between César Narváez (Ecuador’s Minister of the Environment), and the artisanal fishermen. The conflict, however, is far from over.
The mere human presence of people alone does not hold such a severe threat to the native species. After all, its humans did not arrive alone. Since the times of the first inhabitants, non-native species have been imported to the Islands, often with drastic consequences. Many of the species introduced are not rare or deadly in themselves, but when placed on fragile Islands where life took years to adapt, mere rats, dogs, cats, and goats have dramatic effects. Feral dogs, most likely imported to the Islands as mascots of early settlers, have been a threat to tortoise eggs, native iguana species, and even penguins. Four goats were introduced to the Santiago Islands in the early 1800’s, went rampant and one estimate calculated that their population had grown to nearly 100,000.
Due to their constitution and ability to feed on nearly any plant, goats alone may be responsible for the local extinction of up to 4 or 5 species of vegetation and compete with the Galapagos tortoise for their food source. A newly introduced wasp species has been sited on the Islands, and may be responsible for a declining number of caterpillar larvae, a food source for finches. The Charles Darwin Research Station constantly searches for solutions to the problem of introduced species. To find out about this and other projects they are working on check out their website.