The Hand of Man on the

Galapagos Islands

By Michael D'Orso

HarperCollins. 345 pp. $24.95

Warning to readers: Not since Lord of the Flies has a book about life on an island been such a downer as Plundering Paradise. I say this not as criticism of Michael D'Orso's vivid and well-researched account of Galapagos life in this century, but merely to recognize that his kick-in-the-gut message makes William Golding seem as chipper as Jiminy Cricket. As most ex-high-schoolers will recall, Golding's 1954 novel involves castaway English schoolboys who become bloodthirsty savages as soon as they escape the rules of the sixth form. Ergo, the beast lurks in every heart; civilization saves us from ourselves.

Meanwhile, the worse news implicit in D'Orso's book is that the inner beast isn't the issue -- the civilized human is. The only ingredients necessary to ensure a bleak future for the Galapagos -- and by extension, all other fragile ecosystems on Earth -- are (a) ordinary humans trying to feed their families and (b) a few moderately venal politicians. Not a naturalist, D'Orso got interested in the Galapagos when a friend mentioned the existence of hotels on the islands, in a place he'd assumed was essentially empty. In this misconception he's surely not alone: Thanks to the documentaries that focus on the uninhabited 97 percent of the place, most of us still envision these volcanic islands 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador as remaining pretty much as Darwin found them in 1835: that is, a pristine natural laboratory where a million-year experiment in heat and drought and isolation was going full blast.

Intrigued, D'Orso began to follow media coverage of the Galapagos, and the more he looked, the more curious stuff he found. He ran across accounts of shootouts between park rangers and fishermen; he read of demonstrations in which tortoises, not people, were the hostages. In 1999, he flew to the islands for a quick look-see, finally settling in for several months.

He found that for the past 40 years, the islands have been a laboratory for social evolution as well as natural evolution, with results considerably less appealing than the blue-footed booby. The ongoing human experiment involves -- but is not limited to -- international variables such as the free-fall of Ecuador's currency, the Asian market for aphrodisiacs and the drug problem in U.S. inner cities. In the 17th century, no man was an island; in the 21st, it turns out, no island is an island, either.

D'Orso tells his story through profiles of longtime residents: the ex-California hippie who has run a cinderblock hotel since 1967, the incorruptible Ecuadorian park ranger who hunts poachers and constantly watches his back, the aged German recluse who has lived on the beach since the '30s. Some profiles are good, some less so; sometimes I found myself wondering why I needed to know about somebody's grandfather and what he ate for lunch. And D'Orso has a stylistic quirk of using short sentences for emphasis. Like this. Which is irritating.

But the genius of his book lies in his patient discussion of the forces responsible for the islands' decline. The proximate cause is tourism, naturally, but individual tourists aren't the issue. They bring money, after all, which raises the standard of living for residents; and every enchanted tourist becomes a de facto goodwill ambassador for the Galapagos. But tourist money attracts mainlanders, in flight from the grinding poverty caused by governmental corruption, and from a skyrocketing crime rate. The crime is due partly to sorties by Colombian drug cartels across the border into Ecuador, which, in turn, are caused by the U.S. war on drugs.

Furthermore, most Galapaguen~os find themselves locked into the service sector, resentful of their status, resentful of the damage they see being done to their home and hungry for a better life. So when the local fishermen learn that sea cucumbers, or pepinos, have suddenly developed a cachet throughout Asia as not only a delicacy but also -- surprise, surprise -- an aphrodisiac, who can blame them for harvesting the creatures in the tens of thousands, thereby raising their monthly incomes to the price of a dinner for two at Le Cirque? On the other hand, who can help but cheer the park rangers who try to bust the pepineros, knowing that the humble invertebrates being caught are as vital to the sea as earthworms are to land?

And so it goes: Every depredation has an explanation, every remedy a downside. D'Orso is so evenhanded that, by the time you're finished, you can forgive practically everyone, except maybe the smarmy developer of a Galapagos resort hotel complete with pillow mints and turn-down service, and the cruise lines that advertise ecotourism yet run their ships on the cheapest possible fuel, well aware that particles from its oily smoke blanket the floors of harbors and lagoons.

Despite all the bad news, D'Orso manages to maintain some hope. An epilogue written in 2001 notes that the currency seemed to have stabilized slightly, the IMF had approved a huge loan to Ecuador, and the Park Service had seized 16 illegal fishing vessels with an assist from Greenpeace. Perhaps the collective conscience of the world, he suggests, will come to the aid of Galapaguen~os who love their islands and want to protect them. From what, though? That's the question. *

JoAnn Gutin is a science writer in New York.