Saving the Galapagos means rebuilding nature
Conservation in Darwin's lab isn't about preservation – it's now an epic experiment in restoration.
(Page 3 of 4)
"It revolutionized eradication in some ways," says Josh Donlan, executive director of Advanced Conservation Strategies in Midway, Utah. Skeptics thought the size of Isabela, about that of Rhode Island, would be insurmountable, he says.Skip to next paragraph
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"We proved we could do this, after the world said it was impossible," says Cruz.
Trucking up Floreana's Bird Hill like a goat, recently, Cruz paused to look down on a maze of paths he'd cut singlehandedly with a machete 30 years ago while carrying 90-pound packs of rat poison so that his petrel birds could thrive. "Because of that project, I saved them from extinction," he says. "I honestly do not know how I did it."
But he's about to go further: The blitz of rat and feral cat eradication and invasive-plant fumigation will be islandwide. And residents and tourists will be severely restricted on plant and animal imports. This project, once again, will entail many "firsts."
"Rat eradication has never been carried out islandwide on an island this size," Cruz says.
A SMALL-SCALE WAR has simmered between locals and conservationists. In an archipelago that many outsiders don't realize is home to 30,000 people – up from 4,000 in the 1970s – a type of lawlessness described by park rangers as "terrorism" has reigned. It's been mostly perpetrated by fishermen, angry at quotas and restrictions placed on their catches. CDF offices have been looted, scientists have been verbally and physically attacked, and a warden was shot in 1997. Even Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island tortoise and an icon of conservation in Galápagos, has been threatened.
Cruz, himself an iconic figure of conservation here, has been threatened too. Locals who hunt goat for meat bitterly protested his eradication campaign and accused him of pocketing their livelihoods.
In 2007, tensions reached new highs when Cruz publicly called for caps on the numbers of tourists descending on Galápagos. Anonymous voice mails flooded in: "Accidents happen all the time…."
Luis Bonilla, president of the area fishing cooperative, is unapologetic about resident antipathy for conservation: "You can stick a knife in someone, and no one does anything. But you throw a little pebble at an animal and you go to jail."
But these animals draw business of all kinds here. Between 1990 and 2008, the number of visitors to the islands jumped from 40,000 to 170,000. Tourists not only require more fuel and food, but attract more migrants from the mainland seeking opportunity. The government has cracked down on migration – with immigration laws stricter than those in the US (babies born here do not automatically gain residency) – but many say that until tourism is tamed, the population will surge.
"No one even contemplates the simple idea of capping the number of tourists," says CDF social scientist Christophe Grenier, complaining that tour operators making shorter trips with more visitors "sell the Galápagos like a catalog of animals."
A new model drawing tourists who have more money and time is preferred to caps, says Oscar Aguirre, of the Chamber of Tourism in Galápagos. It's not that Galápagos rejects budget backpackers, he says. But he is clear: "We don't want just any tourist here. We want tourists with money."
Tourism will be a key test on Floreana. The island is sleepy, with dirt roads and ramshackle homes that empty out during the day as residents head to the highlands to farm. Until recently, it was not on the tour circuit. But today about three boats of daytrippers dock each day. And developers have inquired about land, tempting a local population that desperately wants more investment.