Tuesday, 8 January 2008

The price of conservation

Our day on Santa Cruz brought home the inherent tension that exists in the Galapagos between the needs of a human population and the need to protect the fragile endemic ecosystem. Human habitation has fundamentally changed the ecosystems of the inhabited islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Floreana. Human habitation and the desire to domesticate livestock and cultivate introduced species has the inevitable side effect of leaching into the endemic ecosystem. Many to the introduced species are able to out compete the endemic species and can lead to a fundamental and often irreversible imbalance in the ecosystem. On some islands, the feral goat populations have over grazed the low hanging plants that are critical to the survival of the giant tortoise, to the extent that sub-species have become extinct. Turtle nests have been raided by black rats and feral cats have feasted on nesting sea birds.

The Charles Darwin Research centre plays a critical role in managing the environment of the park with active eradication programs for feral animals and invasive non-endemic plant species. In addition, they have an active breeding and rehabilitation program underway for the giant tortoise. Each island has it’s own sub-species, adapted to the specific conditions of the island in question. On EspaƱola, where the endemic tortoise population was approaching collapse, the CDRC has successfully stabilised the population and continues to reinforce the gene pool to ensure a healthy future.

The port of Puerto Ayura is more akin to a Greek or Turkish seaside town than anything I have seen in Ecuador to-date. Over 70% of the local population is supported directly by tourism and the rest seem to be closely linked into the supply chain. It seems that the average wage on Santa Cruz is significantly higher than the national average and therefore many mainland Ecuadorians have the desire to move to Galapagos, but most are refused entry. The T-shirt and souvenir shops of Puerto Ayura give way to plantations of banana and plantain and ultimately large mixed haciendas with cattle, fruit and even coffee. The commercial demands for fruit, vegetable and dairy products has fundamentally changed the ecosystem of Santa Cruz at the expense of the endemic species. Small scale tourist operations are increasingly giving way to larger operators with up to 100 passengers at a time. Although, on the one hand, this is positive as it brings hard currency into the economy, it must be having an effect on the environment and the potential sustainability of the ecosystem. Every tourist increases the demand for power, which ultimately results in the need for more diesel, and every new mouth to feed requires more land to be cultivated.

Despite the fantastic work of the Charles Darwin Research Centre this natural gem is under threat. Mass tourism is incompatible with this environment and the strain is already beginning to show. Although I would love to see more people get the opportunity to visit these Enchanted Isles I hope that the Ecuadorian government institutes quotas to preserve this special place for future generations.

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