Tiptoeing Through The Galapagos There's a fine line between enjoying the islands' wildlife and endangering it

September 05, 1999

While lounging at the Quito Hilton before joining the swarms of
peering, prodding, picture-taking ecotourists in the Galapagos
Islands, I picked up my guidebook to Ecuador and read a rather
terrifying passage: "The islands don't need bored visitors
tramping around and wondering why they've spent hundreds of
dollars to sit on a rocky piece of lava under a searing
equatorial sun to look at some squawking seabirds."

I thought of my two daughters, who'd probably be just as happy
in the hotel sniggering at Baywatch reruns. I thought of my
wife, who'd definitely be just as happy indulging in the
eucalyptus-scented sauna. I thought of the Galapagos, the arid
chain of volcanic islands that's a shrine for naturalists and
historians. Then I thought of Wayne and Garth salaaming to Alice
Cooper in Wayne's World: "We are not worthy!"

What ecotourist is? Squatting astride the equator, 600 miles
west of the mainland, the islands within the national park are
in nearly the state they were in when Charles Darwin visited
them in 1835 and more or less discovered evolution. Penguins,
seals and sea lions still bask on the beaches; marine iguanas
still lumber around spewing saltwater from their nostrils like
dwarf dragons; giant tortoises, as large as four feet and 500
pounds, clank along the lava, ignoring human gawkers.

That has not always been easy to do. Humans have been wreaking
havoc on the archipelago's fragile ecology since the 16th
century, when pirates and later whalers started slaughtering
everything in sight. Tortoises, prized for their meat and oil,
fell prey to virtually every ship that sailed in the waters.
Stacked live in ships' holds, they could survive a year or more
without food or water. Today the tortoise population, once
estimated at 250,000, is down to 15,000. Three of the islands'
14 subspecies have been wiped out and another is on the brink of
extinction. Much of the thinning was done by predators that
early settlers introduced to the islands. Cats, dogs, pigs and
goats turned feral and dined on iguanas, tortoise eggs and
plants that endemic wildlife live on. Though park guards have
exterminated some of these interlopers, human meddling goes on.

Which is why Alex Cox, the guide on our eight-day cruise, views
the islands as a touristic Neverland. "Never feed, touch or harm
the animals," he cautioned. "Never remove rocks, shells or
bones. And never, ever, walk off the trail." A native Galapagan,
Cox knows the flora and fauna as intimately as he knows his
fellow crewmen. He knows the islands' history, too, and tells it
with considerable learning. But Galapagos guides are in as
anomalous a position as dude ranch cowboys. As much as they
revere the place, they compromise a little bit more of its
integrity with each ecotourist they bring ashore.

Ecotourism--the trammeling of curious crowds through relatively
untrammeled habitats--is the oxymoron of the 1990s. It's a
closed system, catering to the rich, designed to preserve what's
there. "The key is sustainable conservation," says Cox. Still,
"sustainable" is a slippery concept in the Galapagos. Four
decades ago, when the Ecuadoran government designated 97% of the
territory a national park, the annual flow of tourists was
10,000. By 1990 the number of visitors had quadrupled.

Now, with the yearly tourist population hovering around 65,000,
some tour companies have replaced their eight-cabin ketches with
enormous cruise ships. "It's economic Darwinism," says David
Gayton of Safari Tours in Quito. "The islands are being loved to
death." Gayton has dreamed up the ultimate unobtrusive
Galapa-tour. "We send clients a bill written on recycled paper,"
he cracks. "They send money, but don't actually come to Ecuador.
In fact, they stay home."

We went but strove to leave no trace. We didn't feed one
creature, nick one rock or pocket one shell. We stuck closely to
the marked paths, which often wove through nesting colonies of
boobies who waddled on ridiculously large webbed feet of robin's
egg blue. Mostly, we just observed. We observed a young man in a
good mood veer off the trail, grab an albatross egg and toss it
in the air. We observed an old man in a bad mood kick a sea lion
to see if it would roar. (It did.) We observed a hot, bored
woman on a rocky piece of lava muttering about squawking seabirds.

Unworthy, my family may have been. But at least we were only
passively destructive.


Says one tour operator of the flood of visitors, "The islands
are being loved to death."

Eagle (-2)
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