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The human population explosion has brought in hundreds of non-native plant and animal species that are threatening to devastate endemic life. Alcedo Volcano on Isabela Island--home to more than a third of all the Galapagos giant tortoises--is approaching ecological collapse as a result of an infestation of goats and burros. The goat population is so large (50,000 to 75,000) that between 100 and 150 kids are born every day. The goats knock down cacti and trees and munch on the vegetation on which the tortoises depend, while the burros trample the tortoise nests. Elsewhere on Isabela, dogs have eaten most of the land iguanas. On Santiago, goats, pigs, burros, cows and rats have wreaked havoc on the native plant communities. Fire ants and two types of alien wasps have taken hold on several islands, as have 300 species of non-native plants--100 of them in the past decade.
At the same time, fishermen have been plundering the waters of the marine sanctuary. In 1994 they pressured the government to allow three-month harvests of lobster, shark and sea cucumber--the latter two prized as delicacies in Asia. The shark fishery never opened, but environmentalists say many hammerheads and Galapagos sharks, as well as other species, are still being caught illegally for their fins.
When the sea-cucumber season began in October 1994, things quickly got out of hand. Dozens of fishing boats appeared, drawn by the high price the sluglike creatures fetch in Asia. According to Jack Grove, a Florida-based naturalist and photographer and founder of the nonprofit group Conservation Network International, many fishermen bought their registrations on the black market. By December, park officials estimated, as many as 7 million sea cucumbers had been harvested, far more than the authorized limit of 550,000. There are reports that boats coming to collect the sea cucumbers arrive with prostitutes and drugs from the mainland, and some prostitutes are said to be paid in bags of sea cucumbers, which they later trade for cash.
Officials found large numbers of fishing camps on national parkland, particularly on the shores of Isabela and Fernandina, which scientists consider the world's largest pristine island. Unlicensed fishermen had cut down and burned protected mangroves (home of the rare mangrove finch) to dry their sea cucumbers and had slaughtered dozens of giant tortoises for food. Reacting to the overfishing, the government shut down the season a month early, triggering the protests last winter. But illegal harvests are continuing--and now seahorses and pipefish, valued in Asia for their purported aphrodisiac and medicinal value, are being taken too. A small Asian "test market" has also developed for Galapagos sea urchins as well as sea-lion genitalia and teeth.