Galapagos Plants, Wildlife Under Threat

The Galapagos Islands, part of Ecuador, are located some 600 miles off the mainland. Melody Kokoszka, NPR hide caption

Detailed Galapagos Map
itoggle caption Melody Kokoszka, NPR

The Galapagos Islands are home to some of the rarest flora and fauna in the world. But the wildlife that inspired naturalist Charles Darwin's theory of evolution are under threat. A boom in the human population — both tourists and workers — is overwhelming the Pacific islands. And invasive species are swallowing up the natural habitat.

Sea iguanas

Sea iguanas and other wildlife unique to the islands are among the attractions that draw more than 100,000 tourists a year to the Galapagos. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has the first of a four-part series.

The Galapagos' population has jumped more than 50 percent to almost 30,000 residents in the past few years alone. Four of the islands are inhabited, and on the edge of the largest town, Puerto Ayora, construction is booming.

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Residency in the Galapagos is restricted. But corrupt officials give permits to the poor from mainland Ecuador who flock to the islands to look for work in the flourishing tourism industry.

The islands of the Galapagos are a national park and the surrounding waters a marine reserve run by Ecuador.

For many scientists at the internationally-run Charles Darwin Research Station, the most pressing worry is the effect that humans are having on habitat. As people have moved in, they have introduced plants and animals that are threatening the native species.

Rats preying on bird and tortoise nests have depleted their populations. Feral cats have targeted the iguanas. And some 700 introduced plants have swamped the 500 native plant species.

For many islanders, conservation is the least of their worries. Population pressures mean that there is not enough clean water. Gastrointestinal diseases among people are rife as are sexually transmitted diseases including AIDS. Prostitution and other crimes are on the rise.

Puerto Ayora's mayor is urging the central government to help halt migration, saying his municipality cannot provide basic services for newcomers. But political upheaval on the mainland has left few resources for conservation work.

Another problem is the continuing tension between fishermen and conservationists. Fishermen, who have taken over the Darwin Research Station several times in recent years, accuse it and international conservation groups of looking after the interests of the ecosystem above theirs. And the tourism industry is angry with the fishermen for depleting something that people come to the islands to see.

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