By Robyn

Can we reverse human mistakes against nature, making the world a better place? Happily, the Galapagos Islands, with the support of the Ecuadorian people and government, have been doing just that. It’s inspiring how they can replenish their unique wildlife and native plants while backing it up with tightly controlled, successful eco-tourism.

We knew we were in a different place stepping off the plane last month. Everyone was wearing masks indoors and outdoors – Ecuador’s law. We were required to be COVID vaccinated and PCR tested. This was before Omicron became widespread worldwide and they were trying to keep it that way.

Darwin Finch

A bold little Darwin finch landed on my knee (Photo 1) signaling from the start that the unique wildlife here was unafraid of humans. Moreover, when a thirsty bird showed interest in my water bottle, our Naturalist guide insisted we not give it anything. It would find its own way, although there is little water on the Galapagos. Sure enough, a sea lion had recently given birth nearby, and soon that same bird was sipping from the placenta.

Blue Footed Booby

We saw unique animals found nowhere else on earth, like the blue footed booby (Photo 2), the Galapagos penguin, and swimming marine iguanas (Photo 3). What we didn’t expect perhaps was that our group would be planting 200 indigenous trees for giant tortoise habitat or that we would spend time fending our inflatable boat off a cliff while retrieving a potato chip bag in the water.

Marine Iguana

It wasn’t always that way of course. When humans first landed on the Galapagos five hundred years ago, they looked to exploit it. The most infamous were the sailors on long sea voyages in the 18th and 19th century who found the giant tortoises (Photo 4) to be an excellent source of fresh meat. Weighing up to 800 pounds, these tortoises can live without food or water for over a year and were slow moving and easy to catch (and reportedly delicious). Over 100,000 were removed from the Islands.

Wild galapagos tortoise

Early settlers brought farm animals like goats and pigs as well as cats. It was a hard life with little water and some farms were abandoned. The animals became feral, deforesting the islands and eating the eggs of native animals. Ships also brought rats.

Things changed in the middle of the 20th century when the Ecuadorian government realized the need to protect the Galapagos Islands, calling them “our crown jewels”. The Galapagos was named a National Park in 1959 and a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. Immigration to the islands has been halted and the number of tourists limited. Not easy for a developing country where average wages are $400/month. Construction has been limited and rather than allowing luxury hotels to be built, small passenger ships get permits to tour the islands. And almost all the food on board must be sourced from the local islands to help the economy.

Since 2007 all land visitors must be accompanied at all times by an Ecuadorian naturalist and follow only authorized paths to see the wildlife, many of which are difficult walks over lava rocks. Nothing can be left behind on the Galapagos and all luggage is x-rayed to make sure nothing leaves the Islands.

In the 1990s a massive program eradicated the feral goats and allowed the native plants to return and the indigenous animals that feed on them. And, of course, the most famous repopulation story is that of the giant tortoises. On Espanola Island the giant tortoise population had been reduced from many thousands to just 15 by the 1970s. The remaining tortoises were taken to the Darwin Research Center for a mating program. The males were in short supply, but one was found at the San Diego Zoo in California. “Diego” had been captured on Espanola back in the 1930s for the zoo, spending some 30 years there. In an interesting example of international cooperation, he was sent back to the Darwin Research Center in 1975 where he fathered some 800 offspring over the years, effectively saving his species. There are now around 2000 giant tortoises on Espanola so the breeding program ended in 2020. Diego, aged 100, retired to his home island, where he may live for another 50 years.

Baby tortoises at the Darwin Center

The plan is to repopulate most of the islands each with their specific indigenous giant tortoises which will take many years but is encouraging. We visited the Darwin Center and saw the baby tortoises for each island that will be moved to the wild once they get large enough to survive (Photo 5). At night the staff puts cardboard boxes on them to protect them from feral cats. The egg incubation center was interesting and simple, shelves of boxes with plastic wrap topped with a hairdryer for heat (Photo 6).

Tortoise incubator

One of our last stops was to the Floreana Island mailbox which has been in use since 1793. In the days of sailing ships, voyages would take years. It became the tradition for sailors to drop letters off at the mail box. The next ship to pass by would pick up letters going in their direction. Passing through many hands the letters would eventually reach their destination. No need for a stamp because the letter was supposed to be delivered by hand. Today this wonderful international helping hand continues with tourists from around the world dropping off postcards in the box and picking up others to deliver. Returning home, I knocked on a door in Ann Arbor to deliver a postcard and made a new international friend. And that may be the point of the tradition after all.