“Tourists Could Soon Overrun the Galápagos, Killing Its Famous Biodiversity”

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The Story

“Tourists Could Soon Overrun the Galápagos, Killing Its Famous Biodiversity” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/tourists-could-soon-overrun-the-galapagos-killing-its-famous-biodiversity/
by Paul Tullis
Scientific American, April 1, 2016

The Pitch

Dear Mr. Biello,

I’ve written narrative features about scientists and scientific debates for The NY Times Magazine. Please consider the following query for a feature in Scientific American. I realize it’s less about hard science than most of your features, but given the locale I thought it might nonetheless be of interest. I look forward to your reply.

The Battle for Galápagos
The director of the world’s most famous national park told the president of Ecuador how to save the islands from tourists. Then he got fired.

Arturo Izurieta spent a decade cycling through uninspiring jobs in park administration in Australia when he got the phone call, 2 years ago, that most people in his field only dream about. He was surprised to be hearing from the Minister of the Environment, Lorena Tapia, of Ecuador, his home country. “How would you like to become director of Galápagos National Park and Marine Reserve?” she asked. In April, Tapia called him again: Izurieta was fired, without explanation. The story of his tenure reveals a debate whose winner will determine the future of one of the most iconic and scientifically and historically significant places on earth. I’m the only reporter Izurieta is talking to, for now.

As you know, changes to the acutely differentiated habitats that foster evolution of species in the archipelago can induce rapid declines in its endemic wildlife. 20 years ago the park saw 41,000 tourists a year; when Izurieta got there it was 200,000. The year after that, 214,000. His immediate concern was therefore to manage movement of tourists around protected sites so ecosystems aren’t damaged, and he came up with a piece of software to do just that. When my family visited the islands last year, for example, one day we went to Isla Seymour Norte to see the courting frigate birds. The Park knew we were there, and who else was there that day, then closed the site to visitors for a period so the birds wouldn’t get too freaked out. Every site is under this form of management, based on its ecological needs.

Tapia wanted Izurieta to figure out how many tourists the islands can handle. How many sites can be safely opened? What is the general impact of human presence on the islands? With no power plants in the Galápagos, diesel for generators is shipped in. The more tourists, the more diesel, the greater the risk for a spill. (Renewable energy development brings its own issues.) Thousands of birds a year are killed by vehicles, and only 1,000 mangrove finches remain.

“Waste produced, energy required, construction, the likelihood of introducing new species– everything is affected by the number of tourists,” Izurieta told me. “If we continue growing, very soon we will reach the point of no return: Economic growth will continue for awhile, but soon it will drop because the environment will diminish in quality, and as knowledge of this spreads in the tourism market, the number of visits will fall below what we have today.” This has already happened in other eco-tourism destinations.

After a year of work by more than 20 wildlife biologists, geographers, economists, computer modelers, and other experts, Izurieta presented his findings to the president of Ecuador; the Ministries of Environment, Tourism, and Planning; and the president of the Galápagos Council. He recommended capping the number of tourists based on the visitor capacity of the protected sites. This way, the islands would virtually guarantee a certain revenue to the government annually, forever–though that figure would be lower than what it could get over the next several years with no cap. “We still have time to stabilize the number of tourists, but we need to start now,” he told them. “If we don’t, I don’t know what’s going to happen to the islands.”

In April, Izurieta was removed from his post, and a friend of Tapia’s has replaced him. A former official from WWF was named head of a new government agency overseeing the islands, giving some hope to environmentalists, but concerns remain. A development moratorium has been lifted, and plans are in the works for a large hotel-spa-golf course development, raising fears that the islands’ limited freshwater resources are under threat. A former member of congress was arrested at a recent protest, and national police with riot gear have been flown in from the mainland, anticipating more public disturbances.

“The government, before Arturo came in, was coming up with random numbers for the limit of tourists each year, which they would just exceed anyway,” said Matt Kareus of the Int’l.
Galápagos Tour Operators Assn. “But while he was in charge, there was no increased impact on the protected sites–none. It was extremely well-managed.” Even as the number of tourists was expanding on Izurieta’s watch, he achieved major conservation wins such as the successful re- introduction of the giant Galápagos tortoise to its native habitat.

Felipe Cruz, of the Charles Darwin Center on Santa Cruz Island, is worried. “The president is pushing tourism as a source of revenue, and developers say ‘We won’t invest in Ecuador unless you give us a permit to build in Galápagos,’” he said. “There’s only one Galápagos, so we have to be very careful.” (Izurieta was recently named head of the Darwin Center, an independent NGO).

On the last day of our trip, my wife and I hiked to a small gorge that’s home to a unique species of parrotfish. After 45 minutes on the rocky, ankle-twisting path that dissuades most tourists, we leapt from the gorge’s cliffs into the pool below, 60 feet deep and crystal-clear all the way to
the bottom. Last winter, the government built a boardwalk to facilitate access. What happens to the parrotfishes when hundreds of people a day can swim in the gorge, instead of the 20 or so who were making the trek before? Will increasing amounts of sandwich crumbs, washed-off sunscreen, and the inevitable plastic wrappers pollute the parrotfishes’ unique habitat, destroying a major contributor to the pool’s appeal? I’d like to go back to find out. Hundreds of protected sites throughout the islands are facing threats like this.

Would you be interested in a feature on Izurieta’s tenure as a narrative vehicle to get at the issue of threats of tourism to conserving the Galápagos? There’s been a great deal written about the islands, which should indicate the broad interest in the topic, but nothing about this question specifically.

I’m at [phone number] anytime if you’d like to discuss.

Thanks, Paul

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