Located in the Pacific Ocean some 1,000 km (621 miles) from the coast of Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands are known around the world for breathtaking and inspiring biological diversity, and the surrounding Pacific is one of the richest marine landscapes on Earth.
On the islands and in the ocean, tourists admire creatures such as the Galápagos marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) and Galápagos giant tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra), both listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, and the Galápagos sea lions (Zalophus wollebaeki) and Galápagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus), both listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List, among many other species.
Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution was in part developed on the islands, called the marine iguanas “hideous imps of darkness,” recalls Fernando Ortiz, Galápagos Program Coordinator at CI Ecuador. As is well-known, he had strong ideas about the Galapágos’ finches as well.
IN PHOTOS: The Galápagos Islands
He would no doubt be surprised to see so many tourist boats passing by a place where only a few whalers and explorers dared to come during his lifetime.
A Cradle for Diversity
On the Galápagos, most of the land surface resembles what Darwin saw because 97 percent of it has been protected by a national park since 1959 – 50 years ago. This means that the species he studied are strictly protected by law today.
Despite these protections, some of those animals and plants are on the verge of disappearing, while introduced species, sometimes outnumbering those native to the islands, have been brought to the islands either directly or indirectly by man. In some cases these species are directly impacting the ecosystems.
The giant tortoises that captivated Darwin, for example, have dramatically diminished in number due to hunting for human consumption. According to Ortiz, it is estimated that 500,000 to one million giant tortoises existed before humans arrived in Galápagos, but only 20,000 to 25,000 survive.
Anniversaries of Discovery and Protection
This year marks also 200 years since the English naturalist Charles Darwin was born, and 150 years since he published “The Origin of Species” – a treatise that forever changed the way we think about the natural world and evolution.
READ MORE: The Galápagos: A Laboratory for Studying Climate Change
The observations Darwin made while in Galápagos in 1835 would later provide him with key evidence to support his idea that all species are shaped by their environments and evolve over time from common ancestors.
Darwin’s theory of evolution is fundamental not only in understanding biology, but also to many other sciences; it provides a framework to comprehend, fundamentally, how life on Earth works.
Darwin’s Importance to Conservation
“We can’t measure what we have without understanding the relationship between species,” says Dr. Thomas Brooks, Vice President of Conservation Priorities and Outreach at Conservation International. “In other words, Darwin provided conservationists with a metric for biodiversity.”
Numerous conservation organizations are working to protect all forms of life in this “little world within itself” as Darwin called the archipelago. Since January 2004, CI has been working in collaboration with the Ministry of the Environment, Galapagos National Parque and numerous local and international partners, mainly the Charles Darwin Foundation, in four main areas:
- Recovery of ecosystems affected by humans: Removal of introduced plants and reforestation with endemic species; replacing the use of anchors with mooring lines in places where the sea bottom is most fragile.
- Technical support to marine reserves: Working with WildAid to help the Galápagos National Park improve prosecution of environmental infractions; partnering with maritime and environmental authorities to reduce cost of surveillance and emergency response time.
- Eco-Tourism: Partnering with Universidad San Francisco de Quito to help the Galápagos National Park develop a model for sustainable and environmentally friendly tourism.
- Climate change: Coordinating with the Ecuadorian Center for El Niño (CIIFEN) and other international partners to gather scientific information, identify impacts of climate change in the archipelago and provide management recommendations.
DESTINATION: Visit the Galápagos Trust Fund, Ecuador
The evolution in evolution
When Darwin crafted his theories, the species he saw in Galápagos – in particular the famous finches – became a classic source of inspiration. Those finches can still be seen in the archipelago today.
Says Ortiz, “The efforts that conservation institutions are implementing to protect the biological, ecological and evolutionary processes taking place in Galápagos establish a clear connection between the revolutionary theory Darwin structured and the conservation of such a unique place today.”
LEARN MORE: Discover the delicate ecosystem of the Galápagos Islands.