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It's the Galapagos' astonishing variety of animal life, however, that has captivated visitors ever since De Berlanga, whose ship was blown off course en route from Panama to Peru, stumbled on the archipelago. Because the chain was never attached to any other land mass, all the resident species are descended from ones that flew, drifted, swam or were carried there. Ninety-five percent of the reptiles, 50% of the birds, 42% of the land plants, 70% to 80% of the insects and 17% of the fish live nowhere else in the world. Among them: giant tortoises, Galapagos penguins, waved albatrosses, flightless cormorants, Galapagos fur seals, seagoing iguanas, three types of rice rat, Galapagos bats--and 13 species of Darwin's finch, whose variously shaped beaks, perfectly adapted for the foods they subsist on, were used by the scientist to illustrate his theory of evolution.
Efforts to protect this natural laboratory began as early as 1934, when some islands were set aside as wildlife sanctuaries. The national park was created in 1959; in 1986 more than 27,000 sq. mi. of ocean in and around the archipelago was designated a Marine Resources Reserve, and four years later the inland waters also became an International Whale Sanctuary. The Galapagos have also been designated a unesco World Heritage Site and a Man and the Biosphere Reserve.
Precisely because of their distinctive features, the islands have become a magnet for tourists. The number of visitors has swelled from 1,000 in the early 1960s, after the Darwin Research Station opened, to more than 50,000 last year. Many of the off-islanders are ecotourists who are respectful of environmental laws, but some of the tour operators are not. Ship crews dump garbage and sewage directly into the sea, says Alfredo Carrasco, secretary-general of the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Isles. "Tourists used to come here out of a pure interest in nature," he laments. "Now the tour operators are promoting recreation instead."
The influx of free-spending visitors has triggered a migration from the mainland of people seeking tourism-related jobs. In 1970 the year-round population was about 2,000 people; now it is close to 15,000 and growing 8% a year. The new arrivals are already straining the Galapagos' water supply and waste-disposal systems, and they are putting pressure on the social fabric as well. "The newcomers just come here to make money," complains Esperanza Ramos, who arrived with her husband and four children in 1968. Like other residents, she blames the new wave of immigrants, many of whom have not found work, for the prostitution and drugs that have taken root in the isles.