Perspectives in Galapagos Islands conservation vary greatly, practical matters often outweigh elegant solutions. For many, it is just the way of the world-the Galapagos National Park sets rules about where, when, and how boats visit the sites in the archipelago and require certified guides to accompany travelers for most places on the list. Itineraries have been reworked to accommodate these requirements, but addressing the long-term conservation goals is still an often overlooked priority.
In 2007, UNESCO put the Galapagos Islands on their in-danger list. Invasive species and the growth of tourism were cited as damaging the environment and causing the decline of many of the animals that live there. Since then things have changed dramatically. Aggressive measures have been put in place that screen all baggage, boats, and planes for foreign plants. Restrictions on how many times each boat can visit uninhabited islands during a two week period have reduced the wear and tear on the archipelago, and fishing is closely monitored to give the marine life a chance to bounce back after years of being depleted.
The islands were taken off the ‘Red List,’ in 2010, and in 2016 the Ecuadorian government announced a new marine reserve around the islands of Darwin and Wolf-adding 15,000 square miles and making the total protected waters an area of 50,000 square miles. The sea around Darwin and Wolf has more sharks per capita than anywhere else in the world.
For the people that live and work in the islands, conservation is a proactive passion that cannot be ignored; the wildlife and eco-system of the islands are at the very core of what brings people to the far off location. Great care needs to be taken to ensure the well-being of the creatures of the archipelago.
Enter the Galapagos Safari Camp, a one-of-a-kind luxury, tented retreat in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island. At first glance it seems extravagant-a place set aside for wedding anniversaries, special occasions, and benchmark celebrations. While this is certainly the case, looking further than the cover reveals pages that convey a depth, understanding, and active stance about the state of the Galapagos today.
More important than most may realize, is the adventure involved in conservation in the Galapagos Islands. Using the safari concept, the Galapagos Safari Camp provides excellent excursions in the islands that embrace the environment and the creatures that live within its borders.
Conservation is part of the design of the camp, nature is at the core of their trips, and the authentic adventures that result spread the passion for preserving the fragile eco-system far beyond textbooks and marketing campaigns.
Invasive species in the islands are harder to explain than might be imagined. Plants including the blackberry bush and elephant grass have choked out native species that animals rely on for food, block migration paths for giant tortoises, and change eco-systems so dramatically that everything goes out of whack to the point where endemic species face extinction.
What is crucial to realize is that there are limited resources in the islands for both people and the animals that call the archipelago home. Water is scarce and the volcanic terrain can only support a certain amount of vegetation. A fragile balance hangs between the eco-system and the creatures that live there.
Giant tortoises migrate according to the season on Santa Cruz Island. During the wet season, the gentle giants make an arduous journey from the highlands to the lowland coast, where plant life is abundant and they can find nesting sites to lay their eggs. When the rains recede, the tortoises make the return trip to the highlands where traditional food isn’t scarce as there is more humidity year round.
Invasive species, specifically elephant grass and the blackberry bush, throws a wrench into this plan. Tortoises have been heralded as adapting, but when it comes to their migration, there isn’t a plan B. The widespread plants grow in dense thickets, blocking the way to the coast. Food sources dry up after being overwhelmed, and the population dwindles.
The Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Research Station are pro-active about invasive species; they constantly monitor and enact conservation projects in the Galapagos Islands to rid the land of the interlopers.
The reality of the problem is that it’s just too much to conquer. In an article published by the Galapagos Islands Trust on the topic, author Pete Haskill states, “The Galapagos National Park Service is acting to reduce the impact of C.pubescens (blackberry bush) using a variety of methods, but given its extensive range on Santa Cruz and the relative inaccessibility of the habitat in which it grows, control is constrained by financial limitation.”
Financial constraints are at the heart of the problem. Even with the entrance fee to the islands that go towards the efforts of the Galapagos National Park, and the funds that go to international non-profits; public donations dry up for projects that realistically take years to become effective.
Galapagos tourism has progressed to the point where the multi-faceted medley of conservation efforts are at odds with the many options for exploring the archipelago.
For Michael and Stephanie Mesdag (see image), the founders of the Galapagos Safari Camp, conservation is part of the ethos of the modern safari in the islands. Using their own resources and working together with the GNP, the Charles Darwin Foundation, and Conservation International, the camp is pro-actively clearing the transition zone between their property and the national park, as well as land inside the borders, of invasive plants.
Native species including the endemic scalesia tree-once dominant on Santa Cruz-are being planted as well as cacao. Their conservation project in the Galapagos Islands is ongoing and has purpose. Scalia trees provide shade for cacao plants, which in turn will be made into gourmet chocolate and sold locally-giving residents a new way to support themselves instead of traditional ranching.
While small in measure, the efforts of the Galapagos Safari Camp make a difference. Consider the effect that invasive species have had on other islands in the Galapagos to fully understand what is at stake.
Feral goats upended eco-systems all over the archipelago by completely depleting food sources of tortoises and land iguanas, amongst others.
A Galapagos Islands conservation project to remove the goats from the entirety of Galapagos Islands has seen a turnaround for the eco-systems on specific islands and the affected species. Doing the same with aggressive plant species helps to at least maintain the critically endangered tortoise population on Santa Cruz Island.
For Galapagos Islands conservation efforts to be successful and effective, projects need to work cooperatively with tourism. More land-based hotels and tours are appearing each year, and only those that incorporate responsible practices into their model will make the cut when the inevitable new restrictions are put into place as a result of the growth.
Those that do work hand in hand with conservation projects in the Galapagos Islands can make a much-needed change for the creatures and the eco-system of the archipelago while showing people the natural beauty of the islands.
- More than 800 introduced plant species have been identified in the Galapagos Islands as opposed to the 600 that are native to the islands. Giant tortoises migrate just under 4 miles over two to three weeks.
- The Galapagos National Park, The Charles Darwin Foundation, and the Galapagos Conservancy are currently investing in a conservation project in the Galapagos Islands to repopulate giant tortoise populations on islands where they have been rendered extinct.
- Vetting a tour operator or place to stay doesn’t stop at finding the right fit for your travel style. It goes a step further and includes finding those people who make the choice to work in harmony with the natural surroundings that make the islands special.
SEEtheWILD would like to thank Jon Jared for providing us with a local perspective. Jon first experienced the itch for travel during summer trips with his grandparents to England, Scotland, and Wales. After visiting Zambia and traversing the mountain towns of Colorado, he moved to Ecuador in search of a new understanding of the world around him. In Ecuador, Jon has worked at hotels, restaurants, and bars; served as a local guide, and a freelance writer and editor. His work in print includes Delta Sky Magazine and the 2015 Moon Ecuador and the Galapagos guidebook.