The Galápagos Archipelago – A Paradise in Transition

Five weeks in the Galapagos showed that the magic of the islands is endangered, and  immediate action is required to save this paradise for future generations.

Five weeks in the Galapagos showed that the magic of the islands is endangered, and
immediate action is required to save this paradise for future generations.

by Katharina Proestler

Charles Darwin’s visit in 1835 and the publishing of his book On the Origin of Species in 1859, helped to make the Galápagos Archipelago (designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978) one of the most famous islands of the region. It is often described as the epitome of an actual paradise: nature, biodiversity and endemic species co-existing harmoniously.

The Galápagos have been, and still are, a unique laboratory for the evolution of species. Darwin’s famous finches, marine and land iguanas; blue- and red-footed boobies; the giant tortoise; the tiny Galápagos Penguins and many more species are unique to these islands. They have adapted perfectly to the volcanic flora and fauna, are shaping the astonishing environment. The Galápagos Archipelago consists of 19 islands, of which only four are populated: Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Isabela and Floreana.

A lesser-known fact is that according to the last population census in 2010, the islands are home to 25,124 of Ecuador’s total 14.4 million inhabitants. Unofficially, however, at least 30,000 residents are assumed to be living here at the moment since Ecuadorians from the mainland, like tourists, are only allowed to stay for three months on the islands. This dramatic increase from only 5,00 inhabitants in the 1980s has been caused by the local economic crisis, which was accompanied by a bank collapse and the subsequent dollarization in 2010. As a consequence, many Ecuadorians had to move to the Galápagos in search of new opportunities.

Today, Santa Cruz is the most populated island with its 15,000 inhabitants. Population growth and an increase in tourism are putting significant pressure on the island’s ecosystem, its natural resources and its infrastructure. From 2007 to 2010 they were placed on the “World Heritage in Danger” watch list due to the threats posed by invasive species, unbridled tourism and over-fishing.

The history of human settlement in the Galápagos is a riveting story, full of cruelty and harm to flora and fauna. While legend says that the Incas first settled on the Islands in the 15th century, no proof could be found in the form of literature or ruins. Contrarily, pirates and whalers from the 16th to 19th century had a significant impact in the form of caves and worse, by introducing harmful species like goats, rats, cats, cattle, donkeys, dogs and many insects.

Invasive species of flora and fauna are a particular threat to the ecosystem of the islands because they have no natural enemies, and climatic conditions have unpredictable effects on the growth of plants. For example, the mora is a raspberry species that is very aggressive on the Galápagos and is a danger to many endemic species. All planes entering the islands have to pass through Guayaquil and are checked for stowaway organisms both upon arrival and departure. In addition, passenger areas and luggage are all treated with anti-insect sprays to reduce the risk of introducing non-endemic species. Inter-island travels are also treated the same way so that no fruits or animals are removed from their natural environments.

Humans and animals alike come to find some good eats at an Ecuadorian fish market.

Humans and animals alike come to find some good eats at an Ecuadorian fish market.

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