They are, simply, a living treasure. Remote, mostly barren, and unlovely, the Galapagos islands, 600-odd miles off the coast of Ecuador, nonetheless shelter a collection of animal and bird life perhaps unrivaled anywhere else on earth.Giant land tortoises, marine and land iguanas, sea lions, fur seals, 80 species of birds, and other fauna roam these islands with a near-total lack of fear of man or other predators. The visitor who comes away without closeup photographs here isn't trying very hard.

Charles Darwin, for one, couldn't resist these islands. In 1835 he came, saw . . . and was conquered. Many of his views on natural selection were shaped by what he observed among the reptiles and birds.

Later and less thoughtful arrivals failed to show the same respect -- poaching the tortoises for fresh meat and the seals for their fur or introducing domestic animals whose descendents run wild and complete for the available food. As recently as the early 1970s, extinction threatened some of the endemic species, but now the Galapagos Islands are protected, so their value may endure for generations to come.

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