Postcard from The Galápagos

On Charles Darwin's former stomping ground, it's war between commerce and conservation. Survival of the fittest on Isabela Island

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Juan Carlos Munoz / NPL

Hikers admire the view from the Caldera Rim of the Chico Volcano, Sierra Negra, Isabela Island, Galapagos, January 2009.

If you roam Isabela, the largest of Ecuador's fabled Galápagos Islands, you can still soak up the volcanic vistas and eccentric fauna that captivated Charles Darwin and helped inspire his theory of evolution. Near the Puerto Villamil harbor, blue-footed boobies nest. Cat-size marine iguanas ply the Pacific waters and brackish lagoons while endangered Galápagos penguins — the only penguins that live on the equator — waddle among the black lava rocks. "If there's any hope left for the Galápagos," says Ermanno Zecchettin, an Italian hotelier who arrived on Isabela 18 years ago, "it's here."

But even Isabela may not escape the degradation that the rest of the Galápagos archipelago, perhaps the world's most treasured natural site, has witnessed in recent decades. Two elegant tourist hotels just went up in Puerto Villamil, and while the owners deny it, the Ecuadoran government says each was built in violation of environmental codes. One, the Isabela Spa, poured concrete into a protected flamingo nesting site. The other sits atop a crossing for marine iguanas — and has the chutzpah to call itself Iguana Crossing. Meanwhile, invasive plants like blackberry bushes, carried in from the South American mainland 600 miles (1,000 km) to the east, are strangling fragile native vegetation.

The Galápagos, the 19 islands that opened Darwin's eyes to natural selection in the 19th century, face a survival-of-the-fittest test in the 21st. Rampant growth (the population has doubled since 2000, to about 30,000 people) and unbridled tourism (the annual number of visitors has leapt tenfold since 1980, to almost 175,000 in 2008) have battered the biological outpost so badly that the U.N. in 2007 placed it on the list of endangered World Heritage sites. The U.N. is set to decide in July whether to lift that designation, but "pressures on the ecosystem are increasing," says Gabriel López, executive director of the Charles Darwin Foundation on Santa Cruz Island. "And despite important government efforts, they are becoming much more difficult to manage. The growth trends are worrying."

The Galápagos have been menaced since before Darwin's day, and as a result, in 1968, Ecuador put 97% of the islands' territory off-limits to settlers and tourists. But the recent explosion in the numbers of humans and invasive species on the remaining 3% is doing widespread damage. Fishermen have nearly wiped out Galápagos sea cucumbers (a delicacy in Asia), and the larvae of a newly arrived fly, Philornis downsi, prey on the hatchlings of the famous Darwin's finches. On the Darwin Foundation campus, says López, those birds are suffering "100% mortality."

The big question is whether the left-wing government of Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa is up to saving the Galápagos. The U.N. has noted some progress. Illegal migration to the archipelago has been curbed. Pinzón Island has been restored enough to allow the reintroduction of giant tortoises this month. Recycling and other green campaigns have begun on the islands, and ships leaving Guayaquil, Ecuador, for the Galápagos must now be disinfected. But Patrimony Minister María Fernanda Espinosa concedes that the administration still needs to get ahead of the curve on issues like illegal hotel construction. "There will be zero tolerance," she pledges. "There's a [limit] to how far the Galápagos economy can keep growing, and it's obvious there won't be enough for everyone."

But is her message reaching as far as Puerto Villamil? Through his harborside office window, Mayor Bolívar Tupiza, a Correa ally, can see azure ocean waters; inside, the walls are covered with idyllic paintings of Galápagos wildlife. "Isabela should remain pristine," Tupiza insists. "We have a great deal of conscience about this." But just outside, a tourism operator angrily complains to one municipal official about another, whom she accuses of undercutting her business and threatening to assault her. If Ecuador isn't careful, the Galápagos could keep evolving in ways that are anything but pristine.