'Welcome to paradise!' says Ivan Lopez, our ebullient guide, as he greets the latest arrivals to the Galapagos Islands. The sense of excitement among my fellow visitors is palpable; for even the most jaundiced traveller, the islands made famous by Charles Darwin hold a unique appeal.
Since peeping out above the surface of the Pacific Ocean about five million years ago, the Galapagos Islands have been colonised by a limited number of animals and plants, which have since been free to evolve in glorious isolation, thanks to the distance from the mainland--about 1,000 kilometres. It was into this crucible of life that Darwin stepped some 175 years ago, and thanks to the insights he gained there into the mechanisms that power evolution, the islands have taken on a mystique and a lure that time has yet to dim.
But unfortunately, that lure looks increasingly to be the archipelago's undoing, and the challenge for Darwin's Eden is to retain its innocence in the face of the tempting apple of mass tourism.
When tourism began to take off in the Galapagos during the 1980s, it drove up local salaries, which led to immigration from the mainland. Between 1992 and 2007, tourism expanded by 14 per cent per year, leading to a concomitant growth in the island's population. Figures collected by the Charles Darwin Centre suggest that the number of beds rose from 40,000 in 1990 to more than 145,000 in 2006. Today, about 190,000 people visit the island every year.
According to Dr Christophe Grenier, social science project manager of the Charles Darwin Foundation, the Ecuadorian government's entire model of attracting ever-larger numbers of visitors is to blame. 'The way we're doing tourism is wrong, and the main cause of degradation of the environment and society,' he says. 'The tradition of growing tourism can only be bad.'
However, despite the influx of both tourists and those chasing the tourist dollar, it's generally agreed that the real threat to the islands comes from elsewhere. 'Individual tourists aren't the problem,' says biologist and long-term resident Godfrey Merlen. 'It's the foreign animals and insects that are destroying the islands.'
'The inward flow of people requires transport, which brings invasive species, ending the ecological isolation,' Grenier explains. 'Tourism is driving this geographical opening.'
The good news is that 95 per cent of the archipelago's native species remain intact today; the bad news is that among the animal species, of those that remain, seven per cent are critically endangered, nine per cent are endangered and 23 per cent are considered to be vulnerable--and the figures for the plants are even worse. The islands' isolation, which has led to high levels of endemism, also makes the native species vulnerable to new arrivals, as they have evolved in a world with little predation or competition.
The list of species that have been introduced to the Galapagos is long and depressing. There are now some 750 introduced plant species on the islands, nearly 90 per cent of which were brought deliberately by humans for agricultural and ornamental purposes. About 543 alien insect species, more than a quarter of the total insect fauna, have been registered in the Galapagos, most having arrived in shipments of lumber, fruits and vegetables, and other organic material. Those that pose the most serious threats to the Galapagos's ecosystems include two fire ant species, two wasp species and a parasitic fly that feeds on nestling birds.
However, the most destructive imports are the vertebrates, 36 species of which have been introduced, with 30 of them becoming established. Of these, the most devastating have been the goats, rats, cats, pigs, and dogs.
Such was the severity of the threats to the islands and their original inhabitants that in 2007, much to the embarrassment of the Ecuadorian government, UNESCO declared the Galapagos a World Heritage site at risk. …