Unesco calls the Galápagos Islands a “living museum and showcase of evolution,” but they are much more than that. The islands have become the world’s foremost conservation laboratory, which scientists and the Ecuadorean government have promoted as a model on how humanity might prevent, or even reverse, the catastrophic species depletion that has taken place relentlessly ever since Charles Darwin first pondered the finches there.
These efforts matter more than ever now, as recent research suggests that Darwin was wrong when he rejected the natural catastrophe theory of evolution. According to a recent report from the World Wildlife Fund, populations of more than 10,000 vertebrate species declined by 52 percent on average between 1970 and 2010. In South America, the rate of depletion has reached an astonishing 83 percent. This is the process that scientists have called the “sixth extinction,” comparable to the previous five great mass extinctions on Earth. But unlike the others, the current destruction is entirely anthropogenic — a result of human activity. Worst-case scenarios predict the extinction of one-fourth of Earth’s species within 20 to 30 years if the rise in temperatures continues.
In recent years, scientists have cited climate change as a grave danger to the Galápagos Islands’ ecosystem, which depends on the confluence of hot and cold ocean currents. Some studies have already found evidence that abrupt changes in sea temperatures have caused the degradation of coral reefs, and one scientist predicted that if global warming continued, Galápagos penguins might one day have to live in artificial “condos.”
But climate change is only one of the threats. In 2007, Unesco designated the Galápagos to be a World Heritage Site, in danger from tourism, immigration, poaching and overfishing, but it later removed the region from the danger list on the grounds that Ecuador had taken vigorous action to protect it — a decision that some conservationists criticized. Evidence of the conservation effort is visible everywhere on the islands: in the careful baggage screening before you arrive; in the decontamination mats when you get off the plane; in the specially designated paths that all visitors must follow; in the signs warning of invasive species brought in by ships; in the turtle breeding programs at the Darwin Foundation.
At first sight these efforts seem to be working. Step out of the old United States military airport on Baltra and frigate birds with pointed zigzag black wings lazily hover overhead. On boat trips, it’s easy to spot sea turtles laboriously mating in the ocean, sea lions hanging out on rocks, or a marine iguana frozen to a rock. But this beguiling combination of “Jurassic Park” and Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” is not immune to the manufactured threats that have wrought havoc elsewhere.
More than 170,000 tourists visit the Galápagos every year, and the proliferation of jerry-built cinder-block houses on Santa Cruz is evidence of the 30,000 people living on the islands, many of whom service the tourist industry. Salaries on the islands are three times as high as they are on the mainland, and the locals are not always concerned with conservation, despite the one-week course the government requires of new arrivals. Population growth has increased the risk of invasive species, which constitute some of the most destructive instruments of the “sixth extinction.” Humans no longer hunt turtles or iguanas, as they did in Darwin’s time, but goats, donkeys, dogs, cats and rats are often just as destructive.
Eradication and captive breeding programs have eliminated some of these threats. Goats have been removed from Pinta Island, and electronically tagged “Judas goats” are helping park rangers detect goats on other islands. Feral dogs no longer terrorize the iguana population of North Seymour, and the introduction of ladybugs has driven back the cottony scale bugs that feed on indigenous trees and plants.
Jorge Carrión, the director of environmental management of the Galápagos National Park Service, said it was a success that 95 percent of the species that existed on the islands during Darwin’s time were still present. The techniques being developed to deal with invasive species, and the research into the impact of global warming, offer lessons to the rest of the world.
Failure to preserve the Galápagos Islands’ unique environment would not only be a disaster for one of the most extraordinary places on Earth, it would also constitute further evidence that the catastrophe quietly unfolding across our planet might be unstoppable, leaving future generations with only videos and photographs to tell of the strange and wonderful creatures that once lived here.
Matt Carr is a journalist and the author, most recently, of the forthcoming book Sherman’s Ghosts: Soldiers, Civilians and the American Way of War.