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The Galapagos Islands -- Giant Tortoises

The Galápagos Islands | Can We Keep It?

Continued Story...

by Kelli Simkus

The Giant Galapagos Tortoise

Galápagos Giant Tortoises once depended on the vegetation that is on Pinta Island. Thirteen species of tortoises were found on Pinta Island once upon a time. Sea lions are also an important part of the food chain. Each animal that lives on the islands lives in the area because of its specific needs.

The Galápagos Islands are structured topically based on the specific eco-system of each zone. Thus the zone topology provides us clues as to each animals natural habitat and how they interact within their native environment. The land iguanas rely on the cactuses for food, which are found in the arid region. Darwin's finches feed off of insects and flora on the Galápagos Islands; they inhabit more than one island. Native animals such as these are losing their source of food to continue the chain because of intruding non-native animals.

Pirates who searched for Incan gold and whalers and fur sealers harvesting the waters did considerable damage to the Galápagos Islands. Because tortoises can survive up to a year without food or water, they quickly became endangered. During the 17th and 18th centuries many tortoises were captured during whaling cruises to provide the men with fresh meat to eat during their hunts.

Females were captured first because their shells were smaller. Then the males were taken. When the tortoises ran out harvesters and pirates brought feral goats to Pinta Island and released them. The goats grazed off the vegetation, natural and introduced, and were available to pirates for vital food needs.

Lonesome George Discovered

Today, most of the goats have been removed from Pinta Island. During the removal of these feral goats one Galápagos Giant Tortoise was found. He was nicknamed 'Lonesome George'. Lonesome George was taken back to the Charles Darwin Research Center on Santa Cruz. A mate still has not been found for Lonesome George.

The Galapagos Islands -- Sea Lion covered with oil

Even though Lonesome George does not have a mate, the Charles Darwin Research Center is hoping to release dozens of Espanola tortoises onto Pinta Island. There have been no other tortoises on the island since the capture of Lonesome George in 1972. The Espanola tortoises are the closest in DNA to the Galápagos Giant Tortoise.

Economic Growth

Economic growth and unrelated development threatens the Galápagos Islands. Five of the islands of the Galápagos are inhabited. Citizens looking for work invaded the Galápagos Islands and the number of inhabitants on the islands is more than 20,000 and at this rate of increase will double by 2014. The problem with the islands being invaded like it has been, is that garbage is growing. There are no means of treatment or separation of the garbage. The garbage is being dumped in the open air or being burned.

There are several projects in place to protect the Galápagos Islands and try to restore the Galápagos Islands back to its natural state. One of these projects is sustainable tourism. Sustainable tourism is helping to educate tourists on what the Galápagos Islands need to survive.

Tourism in the Galápagos first started in 1960s and has increased at a rate of 14% each year. During the 1980s and 1990s when Ecuador's economy became very poor many residents of Ecuador migrated to the Galápagos Islands. As the human population in the Galápagos Islands has grown, many threats have been brought to the islands.

The number of cargo ships and the amount of cargo has been increasing. More fuel is being brought to the Galápagos Islands and with it, fear of having another oil spill like the one in 1991 from cargo ship Jessica. As more cargo ships come in more access routes are being made. Invasive species of flora and fauna are being brought in and are a great threat to the archipelago as the feral goats, cats and cattle are.

The Galapagos Islands -- Sea Lions covered with oil

Galápagos National Park is offering tourists of the world an opportunity to become volunteers to help preserve islands like San Cristobal. As a volunteer tourists have the opportunity to work at a biological reserve. Volunteers help replace invasive plants, like the quinine trees, and replace them with native plants.

A greenhouse operation is also in progress. The greenhouse project will reduce the amount of produce imported to the island preventing invasive plants, animals, and viruses from entering the Galápagos Islands. Another important aspect of the volunteer program is that the school children and residents of Galápagos Islands are being educated on environmental issues. (See Conservation work on the Galapagos Islands.) This will help protect the future of the Galápagos Islands.

Research Projects

The Charles Darwin Foundation is currently raising funds for a number of projects. These projects range from restoring wildlife to the islands to making the research building more energy sufficient. Even though the islands charge $100 to foreign tourist to explore the islands, the Charles Darwin Foundation only receives 25% of that. These funds are needed to keep the Galápagos Islands one of the remaining places in the world, natural, as it was before humans invaded.

The Ecuador student program allows for future studies to make improvements to the islands. There are few programs for Ecuadorian scientist to advance their careers because they do not have the necessary qualifications to move forward. The goal of the Charles Darwin Foundation is to allow one Ecuadorian scientist to study at the Charles Darwin Foundation for three years and obtain their PhD and rise to a more senior scientific position. It is hoped that this project will allow theses students to become leaders of their own future and to preserve the uniqueness of these beautiful islands in the Galápagos.

All of these efforts are not only for animals and plants but island survival. The Galápagos Islands are slowly slipping away from us. In order to prevent this there needs to be other projects to protect the waters around the Galápagos.

Whitetip reef sharks are found in shallow areas surrounding the islands and come in constant contact with many visitors throughout the year. The Whitetip reef sharks are mostly in "no-take" areas, but there are areas where the Whitetip reef shark cannot be monitored in "take" areas.

The Galapagos Islands -- Sea Lions threatened

In the areas that have not been classified and are currently being hunted, the Whitetip reef shark is listed as "near threatened." If breeding and growth parameters are not understood then the Whitetip reef shark could become extinct. Regulations need to be put into place for the "no-take" areas as well to provide better protection.

Recently 53 sea lions were massacred on Pinta Island. Sometimes sea lions are hunted for their skins and teeth, but these animals were killed and left to decompose for no apparent reason. The sea lions are a vital link in the island's food chain and any threat to them is a threat to the whole ecosystem. (BBC News, 2008) Protections need to be put into place to protect vital links of the food chain like the sea lions. Patrols on other islands are just not enough. Patrols need to be available on all main islands and minor islands if possible. Poachers should not be allowed to rob the ecosystem of such vital animals.

Last updated: June 3, 2011

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