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Tread softly among the iguanas

By Stanley Johnson. Published in The Financial Times, Saturday 6th January 2007

Click here for FT.com version

If you measure the significance of a topic by how much media attention it receives, I would guess that last year climate change came close to ousting the Iraq war as the number one issue. And as the new year stretches ahead of us on this first weekend of January, I am sure that the future of the planet - in particular the seemingly unstoppable rise in greenhouse gas emissions - will dominate our press and television.

Stanley with giant tortoise, Galapagos, Nov 2006

The event that truly triggered the rising wave of concern with global warming in this country was the publication in October of the Stern Report on Climate Change. Sir Nicholas Stern, a former World Bank chief economist, pointed out that climate change could shrink global economies by 20 per cent; world temperatures were likely to rise by 2°C by 2050, or sooner; up to 200m people could become refugees through flooding or drought.

Stern the name, stern the message.

Because I have spent most of my professional life working on environmental issues, the headline that really caught my eye from the report was the one which read: "A temperature rise of only 2°C would threaten up to 40 per cent of species with extinction."

My thoughts turned immediately to that miraculous, iconic group of islands that I had been visiting while Mr Stern put the finishing touches to his document: the Galápagos archipelago, 600 miles into the Pacific off the coast of Ecuador. The extraordinary wildlife of these islands, I learned while I was there, had already proved vulnerable to the effects of El Nińo, that sudden and dramatic climatic perturbation of the ocean-atmosphere system that is affecting the tropical Pacific with increasing frequency. What would happen if the force and direction of the ocean currents changed as a result of global warming or if they stopped flowing altogether? Would the marine and bird-life of the Galápagos survive if the Humboldt current ceased to deliver its vast load of nutrients?

How ironic that the place that has become so deeply associated in thepublic mind with the very notion of biodiversity could, as a result of man-made climatic change, turn into abiological desert.

As with most visitors to the Enchanted Islands - Las Islas Encantadas - my love affair with the Galápagos began as soon as I stepped off the aircraft on to the tarmac at Baltra Island. The Americans first built this airstrip during the second world war to protect the Panama Canal; now it can handle jets - you can fly there from Ecuador's capital, Quito, in less than two hours. As we walked down to the little jetty to board the dinghy that would transfer us to our 16-berth three-masted schooner, we had to climb over half a dozen sea-lions that had hauled themselves out of the sea to sunbathe on the path. That was just the start and it got better every day.

So often, when you travel, you find yourself disappointed. The scenery, the wildlife, even the people don't come up to your expectations. This is simply not true with the Galápagos.

The extraordinary thing is that, more than 170 years after Darwin's visit, you can see with your own eyes exactly what the great scientist saw. All 13 species of Darwin's finches are still found on the islands, each occupying their different evolutionary niche. The giant tortoises on the island of Santa Cruz still differ, as Darwin noted, from those on the island of Isabela.

Or take the remarkable geology of the archipelago, where volcanic hotspots erupt through the always-moving tectonic plate to produce the conveyor-belt effect, with the older islands moving east and eventually sinking beneath the waves while in the west new islands are constantly being created.

Marine Iguanas, Galapagos, Dec 2006

Even if you have seen television programmes on the Galápagos (for example BBC2's excellent recent series), nothing prepares you for the reality.

Towards the end of my 10-day visit, I was walking with a guide on Espanola, one of the oldest islands of the archipelago. We were following a cliff-top path that wound its way between -nesting blue-footed boobies and Nazca boobies, past some rocky promontories, towards a headland where we could see scores of waved albatross, a species endemic to the Galápagos. Some of the albatross were nesting; some were in the air, still others were engaged in a strange courtship ritual involving much nodding of heads and stretching of vast wings.

I was so absorbed in the distant scene that I failed to notice the ground immediately ahead.

"Don't step on the iguanas!" the guide called out as he saw me about to place my feet on a thick mat of red-black marine reptiles that had spread themselves across the path.

When you find yourself about to stumble over a marine iguana warming itself in the morning sun before it heads out to sea and a breakfast of seaweed, you have to pinch yourself and ask: "Can this be true?"

Then there were Darwin's beloved giant tortoises. We observed them on Santa Cruz Island on a wet and windy morning. Several hundred of them live in a vast forest reserve, where they are difficult to see. Happily, a score or more had emerged from the trees to graze on a nearby farmer's field, so we were able to watch them for an hour.

Frigate Birds, Galapagos, Nov 2006

"Approach them from behind," the guide instructed. "That way you won't upset them."

Once, when I came too close, a tortoise gave a low whooshing hiss, like lift doors closing, but on the whole they seemed quite content to ignore us.

Another image I have is of the blue-footed booby diving for food. When you are snorkelling, you will often hear a loud smack as a booby hits the water, beak outstretched, air-bags extended, at 40mph.

Sometimes the bird splashes down just inches away from you and you wonder whether you are about to become a freak accident statistic: "Snorkeller speared by diving booby!"

Seconds later, you might see the bird rise into the air with a fish in its bill. Apparently, diving birds such as boobies can even go blind in the end, as a result of the effect of their repeated high-speed collisions with the surface of the ocean. This is indeed the survival of the fittest.

Perhaps my most magical memory was when I peered down through my snorkel mask one day and in the blue depths below saw a huge turtle passing almost directly beneath me. It was a Pacific Green Turtle, doing a gentle breaststroke, with front and rear flippers moving in unison. I felt humbled in so many ways. Here was an animal that has existed since the age of the dinosaurs, certainly long before human beings made their appearance on the earth. And it is still around today.

One morning, when we were standing on deck, we had a grandstand view of turtles mating about 50 yards off the starboard bow. What surprised me, in the stillness of near-dawn, was the noise the turtles made - a strange bellowing sound. Other turtles swam around and even joined in the fun, offering - as far as one could tell - support and encouragement.

I had the same kind of thrill when seeing a shark at close quarters. I was snorkelling around the rim of a submerged volcano off Floreanna Island when a five-foot white-tipped reef shark swam right in front of my face. Like the turtle, it was a creature from another age.

Visitors to the Galápagos never fail to comment on the placidity, the lack of fear of human beings, shown by the wildlife there. Darwin virtually plucked his finches off the boughs of trees. The same lack of alarm at human presence goes for other birdlife. If you were so minded, and if your guide wasn't vigilant, you could probably walk right up to a waved albatross on its nest and it wouldn't bat an eyelid. Iguanas, both the land and the marine variety, seem totally unperturbed by man's close scrutiny.

This state of harmony between man and nature didn't always exist. Vast depredations of Galápagos wildlife occurred in previous centuries. Tortoises were captured in their thousands by passing ships. The surrounding oceans were virtually emptied of whales. It is only really since 1959 when the Galápagos was established as a national park and, subsequently, as a world heritage centre, that a proper framework has been created for safeguarding this paradise.

Can the good times last? Or will we once again see trouble in paradise? My own view is that this is a critical time for the future of the islands. The Galápagos National Park authorities, with the support of the Charles Darwin Foundation based in Santa Cruz, seem at the moment to have the situation under control.

One important initiative to remove feral goats from the islands - which had been chomping their way through the islands' vegetation and depriving the tortoises of their food source - has been spectacularly successful. A team of New Zealand sharpshooters working with park wardens from helicopters and using "Judas" goats has succeeded in eliminating 95 per cent of the invaders. Other threats, such as the harvesting of sea-cucumbers for the Asian market, seem to have been more than adequately dealt with.

But there is one menace that, in the short term, looms larger than any other, including climate change, and that is an uncontrolled expansion of tourism. The Galápagos is the victim of its own fame, its own extraordinary and unique qualities. Already some 500 passenger cruise ships are offering the Galápagos as a destination of choice in their 2008 brochures.

Nor is the problem confined to people on boats. It might not yet be a back-packer's dream but if you walk down Puerto Ayora's main street, with its sales-boutiques offering "Galápagos Adventure Tours", you can see the potential for disaster. An explosion of short-stay visitors, including on one-day-trips and two- or three-day mini-trips, might overwhelm the capacity of the authorities to manage and regulate.

Even if the authorities had the knowledge and the means to control mass-tourism, will they have the political will to do so?

In the Galápagos, as everywhere else, money talks. In recent years the islands have seen a high rate of immigration from the mainland and as many as 30,000 people now live there. Most of these are involved in the tourist industry. Pressures to increase the number of tourists permitted to visit the islands (about 120,000) are already being felt and many fear they will become irresistible.

Sealions, Galapagos, Nov 2006

We visited the Galápagos during the final throes of the Ecuadorian national election campaign. We were in the Santa Cruz capital, Puerto Ayora, for the eve-of-poll rallies. Pick-up trucks, garlanded with slogans, hooted up and down the streets and boats sounded their horns in the marina. I saw many signs calling, among other things, for jobs, better sewerage, and support for local fishermen. I didn't hear anyone on the islands calling for the power and authority of the national park to be strengthened and expanded. Or, if they did, I missed it. Yet, without strong political backing at every level, I doubt whether the Galápagos miracle can long survive.

What is increasingly clear, of course, in the light of the publication of the Stern Report, as well as other research, is that the fight to save the Galápagos has to be waged globally - with an international treaty to reduce CO2 emissions going far beyond the Kyoto Protocol - as well as locally.

That wider battle, I hope we may now safely say, is at last firmly engaged in this country in the mind of both public and politicians. Whether the necessary actions will actually be taken is another story. Let's hope the giant tortoises of the Galápagos are still around, 100 years or more from now, to give their verdict.


Stanley Johnson travelled with leading nature travel specialists, DiscoveryInitiatives. (Tel 01285 643333 http://www.discoveryinitiatives.com/)

All cruises include a contribution to the Charles Darwin Foundation and aclimate care levy to offset carbon emissions. The Charles Darwin Foundation is at www.darwinfoundation.org. Friends of the Galápagos are at www.gct.org

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007


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