Although the Galapagos remained untouched by man until fairly recently, the effects of man's short presence in the islands have been disastrous upon their fragile ecosystem. First, the pirates of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and then the whalers and sealers of the nineteenth, carried off hundreds of thousands of giant tortoises to store as a source of fresh meat aboard ship. At the same time they introduced various types of mammals that established themselves on a number of islands. Some, such as rats, disembarked involuntarily from the sailing ships, while others, like goats, were intentally set free in order to provide these early sailors with meat.
In 1832 the islands were claimed by Ecuador, and with their annexation came the first permanent settlers. It was only natural that these colonists, as well as later settlers, would bring with them a thorough stock of domestic animals, as well as many other living organizations that they transported unknowingly. As a result, the majority of the islands today carry an assortment of these relics, including cattle, horses, donkeys, pigs, goats, dogs, cats, rats, mice, and many introduced insects and plants. In many places these have caused severe damage to the native flora and fauna. Most gravely affected by predation from pigs and dogs were the tortoises, land iguanas, and dark-rumped (or Hawaiian) petrels. Unable to resist pressure from the introduced black rats, four out of six species of endemic rice rats have become extinct. Also, on a number of islands goats and other herbivores have seriously altered the native vegetation. Among the major islands only Tower and Fernandina have completely escaped such introductions so far.
The Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands
This international association was founded under the auspices of UNESCO for the purpose of furthering appropriate scientific studies. This is, in the main, accomplished through the establishment of the Charles Darwin Research Station at Santa Cruz Island with the support of the Government of Ecuador. It was dedicated in 1964. The aim of the station is to provide facilities for the study of the islands and to advise the National Park Service on steps to be taken for their preservation. In the first place, facilities are provided for scientists to work at their own projects, which are sponsored elsewhere. The projects undertaken must be authorized by the Foundation as well as by the Government of Ecuador National Park Administration. All scientific work on the islands is planned so as not to interfere unduly with the wildlife and, indeed, the Foundation and the National Park Administration will permit no field research which could do serious harm to any element of the indigenous fauna or flora.
The next two categories of function with which the Research Station occupations itself concern conservation. It is arguable which is the most important, but the one project with which the station identifies itself concerns the Galapagos Giant Tortoise in its numerous island races. It is thought that here is selection being applied by nature and, in spite of the dominant role being played by man by his application of a very heavy selection pressure, as far as possible the latter is held in check.
Even though the tortoises of several islands were near extinction, due to man's influence directly or through the agency of feral species of his once domesticated ones, the visitor to the station is first connected to a tortoisarium where tortoises from the different islands of the Archipelago are reared to the stage where they can be reintroduced to their original habitat, at least in those subspecies where they are most in danger. More recently, scientists at the station have started a Land Iguana breeding program as a result of the high proportion of Indefatigable Iguanas, that have been killed by feral dogs; results so far have been very encouraging.
The research station of the Charles Darwin Foundation is located at Academy Bay on the south shore of Indefatigable (Santa Cruz). The unobtrusive buildings are located among a cactus forest (Opuntia) and as one walks along the paths around the low buildings one is not aware that this unique Galapagos forest type has been violated in any way. Look for the minute blue butterflies (Leptotes parrhasioides) fluttering around the flowering shrubs and for the dark-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus melacorypus). At the station also are kept a number of tortoises which are thought either to be unique or which pedigree is not known. The former are protected so that suitable males are thought for them while the latter are not released because they may cause genetic impurity to invade the island races.
The National Park Service
The Ecuadorian Government has now established a National Park Service, operated by Ecuadorians, to run the Galapagos National Park. With headquarters in Academy Bay, on Santa Cruz, they have already taken over various programs, such as goat eradication and tortoise protection in the wild, from the Darwin Station. They have established plans for the regulation of the tourist industry and have made a significant impact on the islands in the short time since they started. There is an entry tax, included in cost of your tour.
The main difficulty is the problem of enforcing the laws and regulations, and to this end the Park Service needs the help and cooperation of all visitors which aim should be the same as their - to preserve and conserve the Galapagos and their unique ecology for posterity . Although some of their regulations and arrangements may not seem perfect to the visitor, be assured that they have the islands and future visitors at heart. No natural object may be removed from the islands and visitors are encouraged to pick up any litter they may see. All groups must be accompanied by a qualified guide. Please make every effort to make his job easier by following his directions and instructions. Leave only foot prints, take only photographs.
Conservation and Nature Tourism
When you travel in the Galapagos Islands, use marked trails, avoid close contact with animals, and take care not to remove or transport plants or other organic matter. Tourism regulations have been established to protect the native flora and fauna of these islands, and visitors allowed to wander unrestricted could cause irreparable damage to this fragile ecosystem. Observing these important guidelines will ensure the healthy survival of the Galapagos Islands for generations to come.