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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

And in this part of the program, we're going to get an update on trouble in the Galapagos Islands. They're home to some of the world's rarest forms of life. Naturalist Charles Darwin visited the archipelago and was inspired to publish his theory of evolution in his book, "The Origin of Species." This island chain about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador still maintains at least 95 percent of its native plants and wildlife, but conservationists say the Galapagos are threatened. In the first of our four-part series, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro examines the natural wonderland at a crossroads.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:

On September 17th, 1835, Charles Darwin stepped foot for the first time on the Galapagos Islands. In his book, "The Voyage of the Beagle" that details the long journey that led him there, Darwin describes the moment thus:

Unidentified Man #1: (Reading) `Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. A broken field of black basaltic lava thrown into the most rugged waves and crossed by great fissures, was everywhere covered by stunted, sunburned brushwood, which shows little signs of life.'

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But life he would find, in such varied abundance that it would lead him years later to develop his theory about how species evolve, rocking the world.

(Soundbite of surf)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Today, all the islands of the Galapagos are a national park and the surrounding waters a marine reserve run by Ecuador. Most of the same plants and animals Darwin saw are still around.

(Soundbite of surf)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sea iguanas soak up the sun on the sand. Red sea crabs dash among the waves. Blue-footed boobies soar overhead, looking for food. It's just what you imagine the Galapagos to be like, but conservationists say that this is all under threat.

But the Galapagos now has triple the population growth of mainland Ecuador, and it shows.

(Soundbite of construction noise)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Four of the Galapagos Islands are inhabited, and on the edge of the largest town, Puerto Ayora, there is a construction boom. Houses are literally being built by the dozens. Residence in the Galapagos is restricted, but corrupt officials give permits to the poor from mainland Ecuador, who flock here to look for work in the also-booming tourism industry, which saw over 100,000 visitors arrive on the islands last year. The population has increased by more than 50 percent, to almost 30,000 residents in the past few years alone.

Forty-five-year-old construction worker Jose Molina(ph) arrived here several years ago from the mainland, but he says recently things have changed dramatically.

Mr. JOSE MOLINA (Construction Worker): (Through Translator) I came because here you could make more money and there was more work to be had. Now that's not the case because of the excess of migrants to the Galapagos. It is out of control.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Birds chirp outside the collection of low buildings that form the main science and conservation organization on the islands, the Charles Darwin Research Station. For many of the scientists here, the most pressing threat is the effect that humans are having on habitat. As people have moved in, they've brought introduced plants and animals that are threatening the native species.

Mr. ALAN TYE (Charles Darwin Research Station): We're really losing the battle, I think, on the inhabited islands. On the inhabited islands, four of the only seven islands that have a humid vegetation zone and that's where the agricultural zones are, and those are the main source of introduced plants. So I think they're spreading out from those zones into the national park. So we're losing four of the most important islands for biodiversity.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alan Tye is a longtime Galapagos resident and heads the botany department at the station. Although by law only 3 percent of the Galapagos are allowed to be lived on and used by residents, what people bring in has had a far wider effect. Rats which prey on petrel and tortoise nests have depleted their populations. Feral cats have targeted the iguanas. Seven hundred introduced plants have swamped the only 500 native plant species.

Mr. TYE: We have a chance here to maintain islands in a prehuman state, as it were. We can't do that anywhere else so easily. So if we can't do it here, what hope is there for conservation anywhere else?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For many islanders, though, conservation is the least of their worries.

(Soundbite of voices)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dozens of children play in a park by the small island port. On the surface, Puerto Ayora looks like a happy seaside town. But population pressures mean that there's not enough clean water. Gastrointestinal diseases among children and adults are rife, as are sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS. Prostitution is growing, as is crime. Recently a child pornography ring was broken up here.

Puerto Ayora's mayor, Leopoldo Bucheli.

Mayor LEOPOLDO BUCHELI (Puerto Ayora): (Through Translator) I think in Santa Cruz and in the Galapagos in general we live in a paradise. But we also live in a time bomb. There's going to be a price. I am very worried.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bucheli's calling for the central government to help halt migration. He says his municipality cannot provide basic services for the newcomers. But Quito has been in no shape to properly oversee the Galapagos.

Mr. MAURICIO VALDEZ (UN Mission, Ecuador): We have had seven presidents in nine years. I don't want to tell you how many ministers of the environment we've had. And just take into consideration that in the past two years we had 12 directors of the Galapagos National Park, 12 directors.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mauricio Valdez heads the UN mission in Ecuador. He says that the Galapagos National Park & Marine Reserve were used as political footballs under the administration of the recently ousted former president, Lucio Gutierrez.

Mr. VALDEZ: You cannot work in any kind of institution with such tremendous, I mean, lack of continuity.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The consequent low morale and lack of funds has meant that there's been few resources for the park employees to carry out vital protection and conservation work. The toxic political environment has also only added to the acrimony that has existed among those with vested interests in the Galapagos. Fishermen have, several times over the past few years, taken over the Charles Darwin Research Station. They accuse it and international conservation groups of looking after the interests of the ecosystem above theirs. The tourism industry is angry with the fishermen for depleting something that people come to the islands to see. Some in the conservation world would like to see tourism severely restricted and fishing banned.

Graham Watkins(ph) is the new head of the Charles Darwin Station.

Mr. GRAHAM WATKINS (Charles Darwin Research Station): I think, if it is not too late already, we probably have three years to resolve these issues.

(Soundbite of surf)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The islands were discovered accidentally in 1535 by the bishop of Panama, whose ship was blown off course. The Galapagos have since survived being used as a hideaway for pirates, as a penal colony and as a base for US troops in World War II. But now the rapid population growth, tourism boom and lack of will to work together to find a solution may mean that for the Galapagos as Darwin once knew it, time is running out. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can find photos, maps and more stories on the Galapagos Islands at npr.org.

Tomorrow, defending the famous flora and fauna against a formidable opponent--wild goats.

Unidentified Man #2: When they go into a feral state, they absolutely trash the place.

INSKEEP: Conservationists are using dogs in this fight...

(Soundbite of dogs barking)

INSKEEP: ...and even a female goat kept constantly in heat.

Unidentified Man #2: So you've got this sterile, extremely horny goat that is extremely attractive to male goats.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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