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Struggle for the Islands

The most dramatic moment of our trip to the Galápagos Islands in May 2008 was on the last day. My wife and I were leaning over the railing on the deck of the tourist boat Integrity, watching an orca whale. The orca swam close to the boat, almost directly underneath us. Then, just ahead of the orca, a large sea turtle appeared. This was not one of the giant tortoises for which the islands are famous, but an equally massive marine turtle. The females of the species come to the islands to lay their eggs under the sand on the beaches.

My wife had met this turtle earlier in the day, when she was swimming in the ocean with a snorkel. Only a second after we saw the turtle from the boat, the orca snapped, biting through the turtle shell as if it were a pie crust. Immediately the sea turned red and fifty frigate birds appeared from nowhere to pick up the larger remaining scraps of flesh. After the frigate birds were done, flocks of smaller birds came to pick up the smaller scraps. The red sea rapidly faded. In less than a minute it was all over. It was like a scene from National Geographic on television, but real.

Perhaps we were partly responsible for the turtle’s death, since the turtle and the orca were both attracted to the boat. If we had not come to disturb the normal rhythm of her life, the turtle might now be out of harm’s way, mother to a new batch of hatchlings. But in the ordinary course of nature, without boats and tourists, such a death is not unusual. We had seen nature doing her daily work, holding the balance impartially between predator and prey. Only in our eyes is nature beautiful and cruel.

Galápagos: The Islands That Changed the World is a combination of four books in one. It is first a picture book, second a guidebook, third a history book, and fourth a political manifesto. I will describe the four components in turn and then reflect upon their message. The picture book is a gallery of magnificent photographs of the islands and their nonhuman inhabitants, taken over many years by Tui De Roy and others. Tui De Roy is a professional photographer who arrived on the islands with her family at the age of two and spent much of her life there. About fifty of the pictures are hers, including two portraits, of Darwin’s finches and of blue-footed boobies.

Darwin’s finches are inconspicuous little birds that Darwin observed when he visited the islands in 1835. They later provided crucial evidence for his theory of the origin of species. Blue-footed boobies are big seabirds that walk around the islands on bright blue duck-feet. These two images exemplify the clash of cultures that compete in historic places around the world: the culture of preservation and the culture of exploitation. Scholars and scientists try to preserve historic sites, while local entrepreneurs try to exploit them. Darwin’s finches are the chief attraction of the Galápagos for professional biologists and historians of science. Blue-footed boobies are the chief attraction for sellers of souvenirs in tourist shops.

Other photographs in the book were taken by Daniel Fitter, who was our guide on the island of Santa Cruz. All visitors to the national park must be accompanied by a licensed guide. He walked with us into the farmland to find giant tortoises, who choose to live comfortably in the small irrigated area open to human settlement rather than in the more austere environment of the national park. One of Fitter’s photographs shows the small island Daphne Major, an uninhabited volcanic crater, silhouetted against a threatening sky. Daphne Major is famous as the work-site of Peter and Rosemary Grant, who camped there for several months every year for twenty years, laboriously studying the birds and incidentally raising two daughters.

The island is small and the birds are tame enough, so that the Grants could catch and label every finch that lived there and record its individual life history, from hatching and mating to parenting and mortality. They assigned each finch to one of the thirteen endemic species by measuring the size and shape of its beak. “Endemic” means a species that breeds in the islands and nowhere else. They discovered an astonishing fact that Darwin missed: evolution by natural selection sometimes moves fast. Darwin imagined that evolution must be slower than any possible human observation, requiring thousands or millions of years to form new species. The Grants observed hybridization and segregation of species happening within a few years, fast enough to be seen and accurately measured by humans.

The reason why evolution in the Galápagos is fast is that climate and vegetation change abruptly from year to year, and natural selection is brutal. Wet and dry years unpredictably produce lush and sparse vegetation. In lush years, there are plenty of small, soft seeds, and birds with smaller beaks and quicker reproduction have an advantage. In drought years, soft seeds are scarce, and birds with larger beaks specialized to deal with unusually large, tough seeds have an advantage. Selection is fast because populations of birds with the wrong kind of beak to split seeds that happen to be abundant may be wiped out in a single season.

The life and work of the Grants is described in an excellent book, The Beak of the Finch, by Jonathan Weiner (1994), with hand-drawn illustrations by Thalia Grant and Charles Darwin.* Both of them are gifted artists. Thalia is one of the two Grant daughters who were raised on Daphne Major. Before we came to the Galápagos in 2008, we met the Grants by chance at a lunch party in Princeton. They told us that May was the best time to visit, at the transition between the wet and dry seasons. It was clearly understood that we were coming as tourists, not as scientists, and that we were not coming to Daphne Major.

The second component of Galápagos is an illustrated handbook for tourists, describing the best places and times to go walking or swimming or diving, and identifying the species of birds and reptiles and fish that the visitor will find. The handbook occupies the last fifty pages of the book. It is not intended for experts. It provides only brief descriptions of the thirteen species of Darwin’s finches, with a picture of only one of them. It describes three species of shark but only illustrates one. An expert birdwatcher or scuba diver would need a more technical and specialized handbook. This one is aimed at the average tourist who is not interested in fine distinctions between closely related species of birds and fish. For the average tourist, a visit to the Galápagos is a unique experience because of the overwhelming abundance of the populations of a few species. The number of species on the islands is not large, but a small number of them have unusually dense populations. The populations of the dominant species seem even larger than they are, because the wild creatures are unafraid and do not move away when humans walk among them.

We were lucky to arrive on the island of Española during the breeding season of the albatrosses. The handbook tells us that these birds weigh ten pounds and have a wingspan of eight feet. They live for thirty or forty years and generally mate for life. They are magnificent flyers but have difficulty with taking off and landing. Almost the entire world population of this species comes to Española to breed. We walked for miles over the island, placing our feet carefully so as not to step on the birds or their eggs. The ground was covered with majestic birds, each pair guarding a single egg, father and mother taking equal shares of the egg-sitting. In the distance over the ocean, the sky was thick with absent parents taking turns hunting for fish. The island shows what happens to a population when food is abundant and predators are lacking. These birds evolved to fly long distances over the ocean. When local fish are scarce they can find plenty of fish further away. Albatrosses, in the region of Española where we walked, seemed to cover the ground as densely as humans in Manhattan.

Another striking photograph by Tui De Roy shows a flightless cormorant spreading its wings to dry after a swim. The cormorant evolved in the opposite direction from the albatross, reducing the size of its wings until it lost the ability to fly. Cormorant and albatross coexist peacefully because they occupy separate ecological niches, the cormorant fishing close to shore and the albatross further out, the cormorant supreme as a swimmer and the albatross as a flyer. The cormorants on Española are far less abundant than the albatrosses. The population of cormorants is limited by the population of fish within diving range of the shore. We did not need to step over cormorants as we walked, since they occupy only the high rocks overlooking the ocean.

The third and fourth components of Galápagos, the history book and the political manifesto, together make up the rest of the text, written by six authors. Each author has a single chapter, except for the chief author Paul Stewart, who has four. The authors of single chapters are Patrick Morris on the geological history of the islands, Andrew Murray on the history of Darwin’s visit and his slow understanding of the creatures that he found there, Joe Stevens on the diverse ecologies of the coasts, Richard Wollocombe on the oceanic environment, and Godfrey Merlen on the successes and failures of conservation. Paul Stewart wrote a prologue chapter, a chapter on human discovery and settlement, a chapter on the flora and fauna, and a concluding chapter with the title “Galápagos—World’s End.” The authors lived and worked together on the islands, producing the BBC television series Galápagos, of which this book is a summary. Roughly speaking, the chapters by Morris, Murray, Stevens, and Wollocombe are the history book, and the chapters by Merlen and Stewart are the political manifesto.

The centerpiece of the history book is the Darwin chapter. When Darwin arrived on the Beagle, he was mainly interested in the geology of the islands rather than the biology. The islands are the tops of a group of volcanoes. They are spectacularly young, some with craters still hot from recent eruptions, others with twisted ropes of newly solidified lava stretched along the shore. After he arrived, not yet looking for biological treasures, Darwin encountered a dense concentration of black iguanas sunbathing on the shore and grazing on seaweed. He wrote in his notebook without enthusiasm:

The black Lava rocks on the beach are frequented by large (2–3 ft.) most disgusting clumsy Lizards. They are as black as the porous rocks over which they crawl.

But he soon realized that the animals were more interesting than the rocks. He knew enough zoology to understand that a unique population of creatures was living on these isolated islands. They must have appeared on the islands recently, after the islands emerged from the sea.

After the iguanas, Darwin met the tortoises, and after the tortoises, the birds. He went after the birds with his shotgun, collecting their skins, which were small enough to be conveniently shipped home to England. He observed that there were three closely similar species of mockingbirds, but on each island there was only one species. This gave him the idea that a single species had arrived on the islands and split into three after settling on different islands. He wrote in his notebook, “Such facts would undermine the stability of Species.” He did not do so well with the finches. He collected large numbers of them but labeled members of various finch species as blackbirds and wrens and woodpeckers. After he arrived in London a year later, he showed the specimens to John Gould, an expert on birds. It was Gould who discovered that the birds now known as Darwin’s finches are a closely related group of thirteen species. Darwin then saw that the finches provided stronger evidence than the mockingbirds of a single ancestral species splitting into many daughter species specialized to various environments and various ways of life.

The fourth component of the book is the political manifesto. The book, like the television series, has a political agenda, most visible in the chapters written by Paul Stewart. The agenda is a view of the world which may be called “Doom-and-Gloom Environmentalism,” or perhaps more accurately “Black-and-White Environmentalism.” The world is seen as sharply divided into black and white, with no shades of gray. White is wilderness, the natural environment as it was before humans invaded and ruined it. Small patches of white survive in protected areas such as the Galápagos and parts of the Amazonian jungle. Black is cities and roads and shopping malls and parking lots, the areas where nature has been expelled and human constructions dominate. Since world population and industry are growing, the black areas are increasing and the white areas decreasing. The planet is inexorably turning black, and our only hope of improvement is a radical change in our way of living. Since any radical change is unlikely, the appropriate response of an enlightened person is gloom and doom.

According to the black-and-white environmentalist view, the only possible futures for the islands are to be totally white, a natural wilderness preserved from human disturbance, or to be totally black, a community of human predators with no respect for nature. They can only be preserved forever as a permanent Garden of Eden or ruined forever as a profitable business run by a mafia of real estate speculators. As an example of this attitude, I quote the concluding sentences of Stewart’s chapter on the discovery of the islands:

There seem to be no happy endings on Galápagos. In Chapter 7 we will find that our own times on the islands may yet prove the saddest of them all.

In Chapter 7, the chapter on conservation written by Godfrey Merlen, we find the same message:

The fact is that, in a truly fundamental way, biological equilibrium has been altered all over the world, leading to the present disaster.

If the activities of humans all over the world are considered to be a disaster, then the history of our species is indeed, as Macbeth said, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I prefer the viewpoint of Hamlet, who said, “What a piece of work is a man!”

After one week visiting the Galápagos as a tourist, I cannot claim to be an expert. But I learned enough to convince me that the black-and-white view of the islands is wrong. I learned most from our professional guides, who are obliged by law to pass examinations every few years to make sure that they know the rules of the national park as well as the names and ecological relationships of the local plants and animals. They are not required to pass examinations about the human problems of the islands, but their knowledge of the human problems is as accurate as their knowledge of the fauna and flora. To me, the human problems are the most interesting. The Galápagos National Park was established by the government of Ecuador in 1959, comprising 97 percent of the land area of the islands. Within the park, entry is tightly restricted and private ownership is prohibited.

The remaining 3 percent of the area, including the places where human settlements had already existed on four islands, remained open for private ownership and development. The 1959 division worked well for forty years. Three percent of the land was ample for a small population of settlers, most of them employed in the administration of the park and in businesses catering to the needs of tourists. In 1986 the Galápagos Marine Resources Reserve was created, adding a large area of ocean to the national park. Within the marine reserve, fishing boats and tourist boats were restricted, and large tourist boats carrying hundreds of passengers were prohibited.

Human problems became acute during the last ten years, when the number of flights between the Ecuador mainland and the airport on Baltra adjoining Santa Cruz island increased dramatically. Visitors became more numerous and also wealthier, as tourist boats and hotels became more luxurious. The province of Galápagos, with its capital at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal island, quickly became the richest province of Ecuador, and settlers poured in to share the wealth and seek their fortunes. The village of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz was closest to the airport and grew rapidly into a city. The price of real estate escalated.

The government found it easy to set strict limits to the numbers and movements of tourists, but it was politically impossible to set strict limits to the numbers and movements of settlers. The government could not forbid its own citizens to move from one province to another. After arriving on the islands and finding their development of property restricted by ecological rules, settlers organized protests and strikes against the local government. The park administrators now consider the most serious threat to the ecology of the islands to be the settlers and not the tourists.

Our guides described the continuing battle between libertarian settlers on the one side and environmentalist park administrators and government officials on the other. As long as both sides hope for total victory, no satisfactory solution to the problem is possible. The black-and-white view of the situation envisages only the total victory of one side or the other, either the settlers destroying the ecology or the park administrators expelling the settlers. Our guides do not believe in total victory for either side. They have their feet in both camps. They have lived their professional lives in the service of the park, educating the tourists and protecting the beauty of the islands, but they look forward to joining the private sector of the economy when they retire. They have had opportunities to invest in real estate on the islands, and the rising market will allow them an earlier and more comfortable retirement. They will do whatever they can as private citizens to spread ecological awareness among the settler population, and to develop their property in an ecologically responsible fashion.

Our guides see the future of the islands as a continuing compromise, with park administrators continuing to fight for the ecology and settlers continuing to fight for their freedom. The settlers know that their prosperity depends on the tourists who are attracted to the park, and the park administrators know that effective enforcement of their rules would be impossible without the cooperation of the provincial government elected by the settlers. The national government of Ecuador in Quito has the overall responsibility for maintaining the park and making the rules. The national government is generally in favor of a strict interpretation of the rules, but it must also be responsive to the complaints of the settlers. It is likely that the settlers will become politically stronger as their numbers and their wealth increase. An enduring compromise will probably require some yielding of economic development rights from settlers to the park and some yielding of territory from the park to settlers.

In the past, the most serious damage that the settlers have done to the ecology has been the release of imported species such as goats and pigs, which multiply rapidly, run wild, and devour the native vegetation. Where the native vegetation was destroyed by goats, the population of giant tortoises also dwindled rapidly. The greatest success of the park administration has been the organized extermination of feral goats and pigs on several islands. After the exterminations, the native plants recovered quickly.

The biggest extermination campaign, getting rid of 60,000 feral goats on the biggest island, Isabela, is now coming to an end. The weapon that defeated the goats was the “Judas goats,” sterilized male animals that carry radio beacons so that they can be easily located. The Judas goats attract feral goats that can then be killed by hunters. Smaller introduced species such as rats and insects can probably not be exterminated at any reasonable cost. They are on the islands to stay. The islands will never be restored completely to their original state, but the elimination of goats and pigs can cure the worst of the damage. A park kept clear of the larger feral species, including humans, is a reasonable compromise between total preservation of the ecology and total freedom for the settlers.

To achieve a stable equilibrium between the park and the settlers for centuries to come, it would be desirable to get rid of boundaries dividing individual islands. Boundaries could be redrawn so that each island is wholly in the park or wholly outside. For example, the two heavily populated islands Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal might be opened and the two lightly populated islands Isabela and Floreana might be closed to settlers. If this land swap were done now, it would require moving about 4,000 settlers out of a total of about 40,000.

The advantage of the deal for the park would be to gain complete control of the biggest island, Isabela, which is also the most diverse ecologically and geologically. The advantage for the settlers would be to possess two complete islands with a large net increase of territory. The division of land area between park and settlers would become about 85 to 15 instead of the present 97 to 3. Whether such a resettlement can be negotiated, either now or in the future, remains to be seen. The disadvantages are as obvious as the advantages: for the settlers, uprooted lives, and for the park, diminished territory. Most likely, the present division of the islands will last a long time, until some quarrel between park and settlers causes an acute crisis and compels the national government to impose a more stable arrangement.

Since I grew up in England, I tend to think of all environmental problems in terms of English analogies. England emerged out of the last ice age only 15,000 years ago, even more recently than the Galápagos emerged from the ocean, and was colonized by species migrating from the European mainland. After the newly arrived species, human settlers came to England. When they arrived, England was a pristine wilderness, and we may imagine an international park administration set up then to preserve the ecology. What should the park administration have done? What fraction of the land should have been set aside as a permanent wilderness, and what fraction should have been open to settlers? We may imagine the park administration and the settlers quarreling about these questions in England, just as they do in the Galápagos today.

In the real world, when the settlers arrived in England ten thousand years ago, there were no park administrators and no barriers to settlement. England was overrun with settlers who did what they pleased with the wilderness, first building forts on hilltops, then chopping down trees and converting forest into farmland, then building villages in valleys and cities beside rivers, then covering the country with furnaces and factories and railways and roads, polluting the air with soot and the rivers with sewage. While they were destroying the wilderness and transforming the ecology, the settlers incidentally built cathedrals and gardens, wrote plays and poems, invented machines and discovered laws of nature. Finally, in the last century, the settlers, now fifty million strong, began to clean up the environment and take care of the wildlife. Today the English countryside is entirely man-made, quite different from the original wilderness of uninterrupted forest, but it is still beautiful, rich in variety of habitats and species. This English history raises another question. If England had been governed for the last ten thousand years like the Galápagos by a park administration, would the final result have been better?

After examining the example of England, I do not know whether, in the long run, any international park regime dedicated to preserving the wilderness could have achieved a better result than the settlers who took possession of the land free of all restraint. Taking a long view, I am equally uncertain about the future of the Galápagos. It may well be that in the long run the settlers will do better than the park. Human settlement and wilderness are equally a part of nature, and our task as custodians of the planet is to help them to coexist peacefully. To take care of the islands in the long run, we need both the park administration and the settlers. We cannot know what problems they will face. A human presence in the islands is important not only for the future of the Galápagos but for the future of Ecuador as a whole.

After our week in the islands, we spent a second week in Ecuador, in the Amazon jungle east of the Andes mountains. We stayed at Sacha Lodge, a tourist hotel deep in the jungle. The long trip down the river to the lodge reminded us of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Our professional guides in the jungle are Amazonian natives who have grown up in that part of Ecuador. One of them was brought up by a grandfather who was a shaman, using the medicinal plants of the jungle to heal wounds and cure diseases. The grandson speaks five languages fluently, Spanish, English, and German as well as two native languages. Just as in the Galápagos, the guides are passionate environmentalists, expert in the ecology of the jungle, and also well informed about the human problems of the Amazon region. They intend to retire, as soon as they have saved enough money, to jobs in the private sector. They see the Amazon region, like the Galápagos, as a land of opportunity. For them too, ecological preservation and human presence go hand in hand.

  1. *

    See also Peter Grant and Rosemary Grant, How and Why Species Multiply: The Radiation of Darwin’s Finches (Princeton University Press, 2007).

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