Life Style Extra, U.K.
Thursday, 12th October 2006, 10:54
The Galapagos Islands - regarded by biologists as the most precious habitat on Earth - face destruction from mass tourism and the "alien species" humans bring with them, warns a new report.
The two-pronged attacks come from rats, goats and other animals who have turned the once-lush terrain of 'Darwin's Paradise' into patchy grassland and the hordes of eco-tourists descending on the equatorial archipelago.
Last year around 126,000 people visited the Galapagos - home to some of the world's most exotic animals - and cruise ship companies have recently added the islands to their destinations.
The volcanic islands, famous for their giant tortoises, provided material for some of Charles Darwin's key research in formulating his theory of evolution.
Felipe Cruz, technical director of the Charles Darwin Foundation which is dedicated to conserving the islands, believes the Galapagos should not be used in this way.
He told New Scientist: "We don't want cruise ships in the Galapagos - we don't think it's sustainable."
The ships leave local people and the environment to deal with their laundry water and sewage waste. Second, the larger numbers of tourists visiting the same areas will disturb the wildlife. Third, the chances of bringing alien species or disease is greatly increased.
But cruise ships are coming. The Ecuadorean Government allows 12 500-passenger cruise ships to visit the Galapagos each year.
So far the only one has been the 698-berth MV Discovery operated by Discovery World Cruises of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which visited in May.
Classic International Cruises, based in Lisbon, Portugal, has the Athena, which is scheduled to visit in 2008. Mr Cruz says the ships bring their own food with them and don't deal with local people so the tourist money doesn't filter into sustainable tourism.
The Galapagos — famously visited by Charles Darwin on the Beagle in 1835 — was the first place to be designated a World Heritage Site in 1978.
The islands are home to thousands of rare species including marine iguanas, giant tortoises, blue-footed boobys, sea cucumbers, flightless cormorants, woodpecker finches and Galapagos sea lions - all now under threat of extinction.
Every time a plane or a boat arrives at an island there is a risk of it bringing in a new invasive species.
Conservationists fear the TV documentary series about the Galapagos being shown on BBC Two will further boost the tourist boom.
Invasive species on the islands include cats and dogs brought in by local residents — some pets have been known to attack birds, tortoises and turtles. There is also an illegal fishing problem, with some fishermen supplying food for tourists.
Pirates used the islands as hide-outs until the 19th Century, introducing many non-natives such as rats, pigs and goats.
Leonor Stjepic, executive director of the Galapagos Conservation Trust in London, said: "It is very difficult to perform adequate quarantine checks on a large ship with lots of people and luggage.
"West Nile virus has already been detected in Colombia. Imagine the devastation if that – or avian flu – came to the Galapagos."
Classic International Cruises said they will comply with the rules set by the Ecuadorean government and the Galapagos National Park Management as far as protecting the islands is concerned.
Ms Stjepic insists cruise ships are not a good thing for the islands.
She said: "It goes beyond environmental impact assessment. Even now we get invasive species, such as thrips, and blackberry, which has devastated the daisy trees in the highlands of Santa Cruz."
Managing the Galapagos is difficult - but there are successes. Most notably, Project Isabela, which eradicated thousands of goats that had devastated many of the islands in the archipelago.
Even large islands like Santiago and Isabela, each home to almost 100,000 of these alien invaders, are now goat-free.
In 1835 Darwin spent five weeks on the the islands, making extensive collections of plants and animals and observations of their natural history.
For example, he found 13 different types of finches whose beaks were modified to different sub-environments on the islands. Mr Darwin's 1845 book, Voyage of the Beagle, includes a detailed chapter on the Galapagos.
Now a world heritage site, the remote archipelago is managed by the Galapagos National Park Service, with help and advice from the Charles Darwin Foundation. The islands are administered by Ecuador, which in 1959 declared 97 per cent of the total land area a national park.
The national park is fiercely protected, because it is the last place on Earth that preserves the unique biodiversity of a complete archipelago. Almost all its native flora and fauna remains intact.
Graham Walters, of the Charles Darwin Foundation, said: "We believe the only way to ensure sustainable tourism and consequently a sustainable society in Galapagos will be through alliances among government, tourism, private sector, conservation groups and the local community."