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Modernization Threatens Galapagos Islands - 2002-10-30

The unique environment of Ecuador's Galapagos Islands inspired Charles Darwin's theory of evolution in 1835. The islands continue to be one of the world's most pristine environments and home to numerous endangered species. But the Galapagos face the challenges of modernization, and officials and private groups are working to preserve them.

Tourists preparing to visit Espanola Island form into groups. Before they leave the Galapagos Explorer II and pile into smaller boats, expedition leader Salvador Cazar reads them the rules.

"Rule number one says please do not disturb or remove any natural object of the Galapagos. That means that no plants, no rocks, no shells, no feathers, no samples of sand can be removed from the Galapagos," he explains. "The second rule is about, it says, please do not touch the wildlife, do not touch the animals."

Mr. Cazar explains the wildlife in the Galapagos has evolved in isolation. Because of that, the environment is free of big predators and the animals have no fear. Therefore, he says the sea lions, birds, lizards, marine iguanas and other wildlife allow humans to come very close to them.

The visitors arrive at the island of Espanola. Dozens of sea lions looking like huge overstuffed sausages are flopped out on the beach. Marine iguanas lie passively on the ground or move around noiselessly, ignoring the visitors.

"As you know, these iguanas are unique in the world," explains Naturalist Guide, Ramiro Tomala.

"These iguanas have adapted to living in the water and also getting their food from the water. You cannot find them anywhere else in the world and we believe they originated from the land iguanas that we have here in the island," he says.

The guide leads his group along a perilous trail of jagged rocks, past spectacular views of eroded archaic volcanoes and seascapes.

He points out the droll looking blue-footed boobie bird, the honking females and the whistling males. There are also fragate birds, which steal food from other species. And there is a male lava lizard doing pushups to lay claim to his territory and attract the attention of females.

The barren volcanic rock islands and peerless wildlife inspire the imagination.

It seems to be a completely idyllic place.

But even Espanola Island has its problems. Humans have brought danger here.

Poachers come here, 1,000 kilometers off the coast of Ecuador, to trap and kill animals. A few months ago, a boat was caught with an illegal catch of dolphins. The captain's punishment, a fine equivalent to just four-cents.

In addition, guide Ramiro Tomala says the population of marine iguanas has been reduced by the introduction of dogs and cats that hunt them. And he says goats nearly eradicated Espanola's population of giant tortoises.

"Now, here we had a lot of goats that reduced the population from 15,000 giant tortoises down to 14 individuals. Can you imagine, 15,000 to 14 individuals?" he asks.

The job of protecting a place like the Galapagos requires both government and private money and effort.

The Charles Darwin Research Station on nearby Santa Cruz Island set up a breeding center and was able to save the giant tortoises from extinction. More than 2,000 tortoises have been returned to Espanola. The Research Station was founded in 1959. It works with the Galapagos National Park Service to conserve the islands' native species.

"For the Charles Darwin Foundation, the principle threat in the next year, is the invasive species," explains Mr. Tomala.

Foundation Director, Fernando Espinoza says about a year ago, the mosquito that causes dengue fever was introduced into Santa Cruz Island. He says the quarantine system on the mainland is inadequate and must be strengthened to keep out disease bearing animals, vegetables, seeds, and insects. Mr. Espinoza says a better quarantine system will be introduced at Equadorian ports within the next three years.

"The government of Ecuador will invest maybe $5 million in the next three years building special laboratories and filters in all these ports," he says. "We hope in this kind of work to avoid the arrival of new species."

Those efforts face not only scientific challenges, but also man-made problems.

Conservationists say huge amounts of money are involved in illegal fishing for sharks, sea slugs, and other species. Other problems include destructive oil spills such as the one that killed thousands of marine iguanas last year.

In addition, the islands' human population is growing, and so is tourism. The same tourists who help raise interest in the islands and provide money to help protect them represent a threat, bringing pollution and, potentially, disease.

Despite these problems, the government and private conservationists have been successful in maintaining the unique environment of the Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos have kept 95 percent of the species they had when Charles Darwin stumbled upon them in the mid-19th century. But it is a daily battle.