blue-footed boobies

Galápagos Islands – Preserving Nature & Hosting Tourists

Monday was Earth Day. The Galápagos Islands are a great example of how to make every day earth day. We humans are the only species foolish enough to intentionally pollute and destroy our own habitat, naively believing if we can’t see it, it’s not our problem. It is our problem.

We all need the air, water, and food produced from this one planet. Mass migration to another planet just isn’t going to happen during any of our life times. We can do better.  Places like the Galápagos Islands are doing better and we can learn from them.

Modern Galápagos Islands may be what the Creator had in mind for how humans were intended to have dominion over all living things. Trained and licensed tour guides enforce the rules, which are clear and apply on all nineteen of these exquisite islands about 600 miles west of Ecuador. “Stay on the trails at all times. Do not touch any of the wildlife or plants. Take only pictures. Leave only footprints.”

The name “Galápagos” comes from the Spanish word for saddle, which is what the shells of the giant tortoises looked like to the early explorers. I spent three weeks touring the islands on a small ship with fifteen other tourists. and was amazed how unperturbed wildlife was by our presence. Day one we were on Seymour Island and came upon Blue-footed Boobies tending their nests – in the middle of the trail. Tour Guide Julien gave us permission to leave the trail just enough to step around them. The Boobies’ attitude seemed to be, “We were here first. Deal with it.”

Blue-footed Boobies

We watched one Booby couple do their courtship rituals. The birds gauge one another’s health by the brightness of each other’s feet.  Their short legs and large webbed feet make them waddle like ducks. That, combined with their bright blue feet, give them a clownish appearance; which explains their name. “Booby” comes from the Spanish “bobo,” which means foolish or dummy.  The males use their feet to attract females. They lift their feet, one at a time, to show off its bright blue color. She mirrors his moves. They expand and flap their wings. He may pick up a stone or stick for her. They do a sort of whistle call to one another. Courtship includes a fair amount of beak clicking and clacking. Though the Blue-footed variety is the best-known Booby, Galápagos is also home to Red-footed and Masked Boobies.

The Ecuadorian government has gone to great lengths to preserve this remote chain of islands while simultaneously hosting thousands of tourists each year. Thanks to the efforts of the global science and conservation community, drastic steps have been taken over the past half-century to protect the fragile Galápagos Islands eco-system. Today wildlife rarely encounters humans who are not accompanied by local guides.

First UNESCO World Heritage Site

In 1978 the United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) designated these islands as the first World Heritage site. Thus, the global village concurred with what Charles Darwin learned on his 1835 expedition; this valuable and vulnerable place is worth preserving.

Sustaining a good situation for both wildlife and humans is a perpetual challenge. On the one hand tourism is an annual $400 Million or more boost to the Ecuadorian economy, which generates more ambassadors and funds for conservation efforts. On the other hand, the growing number of tourists visiting each year adds stress to the fragile eco-system.  About 150,000 tourists visit each year, needing places to sleep, dine, and shop. Building those places compromises the habitats of the creatures that draw the tourists.

Endangered Waved Albatrosses

Human-wildlife interactions usually turn out better for the humans than the wildlife. Consider the Waved Albatrosses on Española, the only island where they breed. The breeding cycle starts when the female lays one egg on bare ground, sometime between April and June.  They mate for life, with a life span of up to forty years. Both partners take turns tending the egg, which typically takes two months to hatch. Shortly after the chicks hatch the adults take turns leaving the hatchlings behind in groups with some adults watching over them while others forage for food out in the ocean. The newest group of chicks takes off around January, not to return for up to six years. They come back to find a mate and repeat the cycle. A mature albatross stands about a yard tall with a wingspan of over eight feet, making it the largest bird in the islands.

The Waved Albatross was listed as critically endangered by the Galápagos Conservancy in 2007. Their numbers are dwindling, partly due to fishing boat oil pollution and oil spills and in part to commercial fishing that catches them, by accident or as food for humans.

Periodic El Niño episodes are also have also damaged their habitat. Today the albatrosses are getting help from the combined efforts of the Galápagos National Park wardens and the  Charles Darwin Foundation. Peru has also joined forces to slow and reverse their decline in numbers.

Problems with Non-Native Species

When the first humans settled in the Islands they introduced non-native species, often with drastic consequences. Rats, dogs, cats, and goats have taken a horrific toll on the fragile Islands. Feral dogs, introduced as pets of early settlers, are a threat to tortoise eggs, native iguana species and even penguins. Four goats introduced to the Santiago Islands in the early 1800’s, went rampant and one estimate calculating their population at nearly 100,000. Due to their constitution and ability to feed on nearly any plant, goats alone may be responsible for the extinction of 4 or 5 species of vegetation. Plus, they compete with the Galápagos tortoise for food.

Nature is amazingly diverse, adaptive, and resilient. However, the impact of human careless and relentless encroachment into the natural world leads to disastrous consequences. The result not only reduces the abundance of wildlife, it will also leads to problems for humans. How the Galápagos Islands are being managed today proves nature and humans can co-exist for the benefit of both.

If you are concerned about the fate of our fragile global village, you might also enjoy these articles: Fun Facts About The Galapagos IslandsInteresting Facts about Galapagos, or Charles Darwin and the Islands.

Thank you for taking time to read about my journey to The Galápagos Islands. I hope you learning more about this amazing collection of islands. If so, please take another minute to forward this to a friend. If you don’t already get my weekly blogs about the people and places making a useful contribution to our global village, sign up at HowWiseThen. I’m currently giving away a section about the evolution of marriage from the study guide portion of my most recent book, Asunder.

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