Visiting the Galapagos Islands — which have long been considered Charles Darwin’s natural laboratory — is like stepping into a nature documentary. You can snorkel with playful sea lions, watch “Darwin’s finches” feed and inch up to ancient giant tortoises. Since 1959, 97 percent of the archipelago has been a national park, which is now surrounded by one of the world’s largest marine reserves. Scientists estimate that 95 percent of the biodiversity that existed before the archipelago was first encountered by a Spanish friar nearly 500 years ago — equatorial penguins, marine iguanas, flightless cormorants — still remains. Widely seen as one of the world’s last bastions of wild nature, the islands are a conservation success at a time when optimistic environmental stories are all too hard to come by.
But the sinking of a barge carrying hundreds of gallons of oil in the archipelago on Dec. 22 jarred our image of this natural sanctuary. The accident revealed a different side of the Galapagos, one that is fully entrenched in the environmental troubles that plague our world. Indeed, as we seek models for saving nature in the midst of a global extinction crisis, the example of the Galapagos threatens to lead us astray. Attempts to rescue the archipelago may, ironically, even be suppressing the very thing that made it so special to Darwin — the way it helped him understand how species adapted to changing environments. Conservationists have worked for decades to effectively cut the islands off from the rest of the world so that evolution could continue untouched by human influence, while also restoring populations of endangered species, such as the giant tortoises, whose charisma draws our attention to their plight.
Yet no matter how badly we want them to be, the Galapagos are not pristine. To pretend otherwise is to turn what was once a natural laboratory into a time capsule, and to miss the lessons the archipelago has to offer about conservation in a changing world. When we try to protect evolution — and the unusual creatures that are its products — by isolating nature or trying to restore it, we hold the islands to an impossible standard that denies the forces that have shaped the place.
It turns out impossible standards are very difficult to maintain. Consider the efforts to save the Galapagos tortoises — animals that are textbook examples of natural selection because of their diversification into 15 different species on different islands and volcanoes. For centuries, the animals were a source of food for Pacific pirates and whalers who, along with island colonists, killed some 200,000 tortoises. Even Darwin, who made them a key component of his scientific work, ate them when in the islands in 1835. Today only 12 species, and about 20,000 tortoises, remain. Since 1965, conservationists have bred tortoises in captivity to restore what populations they can. More than 100 adult tortoises live in centers where keepers care for them, incubate their eggs and raise hatchlings until they are large enough to withstand predators. I volunteered for a month in one of the centers: Three days a week, we fed adult tortoises wheelbarrows full of tree branches, while baby tortoises received bits of enormous elephant-ear leaves that we sliced with machetes. Two days a week, we cleaned up after the animals, sweeping their feeding platforms and scrubbing scum from wading pools with wire-bristle brushes. More than five decades of such work has made the program successful — the centers have reared nearly 10,000 tortoises and returned them to their native habitats.
Yet this benevolent project has required violent work, as well. Protecting tortoise habitat means clearing it of invasive species like rats that prey on juvenile tortoises and goats that compete for limited vegetation. In the 1990s, a team of park guards camped on remote islands for weeks at a time with the task of hunting goats and wild boars. They killed tens of thousands of the animals, but when they left, the populations rebounded. In the 2000s, the Galapagos National Park Directorate undertook a $50 million campaign to eradicate feral goats, hogs and donkeys. It was a massive hunting effort that involved using 800 “Judas” goats as sacrificial trackers to locate herds; some of these females were biologically manipulated into permanent estrus to attract males (they were nicknamed Mata Hari goats, after the World War I courtesan-spy). All told, hunters shot more than 150,000 goats on two islands, sometimes from helicopters because of the rough terrain. Killing is the hidden side of conservation.
The eradication project had unintended consequences; it did not restore a pristine world. Without goats and pigs, native vegetation as well as populations of endangered rail birds rebounded. But Galapagos hawk populations declined, apparently because the denser vegetation made hunting more difficult and because of the loss of goat carrion. Invasive hill raspberry also irrupted, its brambles becoming a problem for island farmers as well as for tortoises that can’t move through them. And the thickening brush hampered the Galapagos albatross, which need long, cleared runways to take flight.
Simply put, these conservation efforts — built around a well-meaning desire to restore the islands to an Edenic state, before the fall caused by human impact — failed to take into account that the Galapagos had already changed irrevocably, as they probably would have regardless. Humans affect nature, but it is never fully within our control. It is always changing — from global warming all the way down to the random biological mutations that are the wellspring of evolution. This, after all, is what Darwin taught us; in our ever-shifting world, trying to restore nature to a pristine state contradicts his message. Even if the changes are not wholly natural, the laboratory continues to evolve.
Another success may be the most problematic of all: tourism. In the early 1960s, foreign conservationists promised profits from nature tourism in the Galapagos to convince the Ecuadoran government of their conservation plans. At a time when fewer than 1,000 visitors roughed it in the islands each year, it would have been difficult to imagine a future when about 275,000 people visit annually. Most tourists come from North America and Europe and stay in the relative luxury we expect in any tourism destination — even one 600 miles off the Ecuadoran coast with very little freshwater. Some take cruises that continually circle the archipelago; others stay in one of four towns that are home to a total of 30,000 people, mostly Ecuadoran citizens. Tourism is the lifeblood of the local economy and an important source of funding for conservation. Yet as tourism increases, so does development in the islands — and its negative impacts for terrestrial and marine life because of pollution and encroachment on habitat. Supporting residents and visitors means importing fuel, food, air conditioners and automobiles from the continent. The amped-up air and sea travel has also led to the inadvertent introductions of new pests. One is the parasitic fly Philornis downsi, which kills young finches and other avian species, and whose virulence has increased in parallel with economic growth since the late 1960s.
Conservationists have brought giant tortoise species back from the brink of extinction. Yet saving tortoises is not enough. The goal of restoring the archipelago as a natural laboratory ignores the human element. This is the key lesson that the Galapagos can offer us today: Conservation cannot focus exclusively on saving charismatic species or locking nature behind a fence. We cannot ignore the relationship between our economies — even seemingly beneficial nature tourism — and conservation. The Galapagos should not be idolized as a surviving remnant of a more natural past. The archipelago is instead a microcosm for understanding how human actions are shaping evolution in unpredictable ways. Its islands are a reminder that nature is not something we can preserve — it is a process that is always in motion and inseparable from the world’s rich, contradictory and human complexity.
Restoration, then, is not the right goal for conservation. Instead of looking back with nostalgia, we must look ahead. Breeding tortoises and eradicating invasive species cannot restore the past. But conservation can help to ensure a vibrant future, as many biologists and conservationists in the Galapagos do every day. In the case of Philornis downsi, this involves encouraging finches to build their nests with fumigated cotton and enforcing quarantine and fumigation protocols for travel to and among the islands. Such work also means cleaning up the damage from an economy that runs on fossil fuels. But neither preventing species introductions and accidents like the sunken barge, nor even the essential work of mitigating their fallout, is enough to ensure a thriving future for the Galapagos.
Looking ahead means that conservation cannot focus solely on protecting what is left after centuries of environmental exploitation. We have wrought unprecedented species losses and a warming climate. We cannot predict, much less control, how these changes will shape the future of evolution in the Galapagos or elsewhere. Instead of idealizing the Galapagos as an escape to a more natural past, we must confront the causes of contemporary environmental crises: the ever-expanding economies that threaten not only the Galapagos but environments much closer to home as well.