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Guest Writer

Galápagos Journal (Part Seven)
Looking back to land
by Dan Buettner

e set out with the ambitious goal of gauging the present environmental health of the Galápagos Islands.

Our plan was to follow Charles Darwin's 1835 route and see what he saw. Whether or not you agree with his theory of evolution, his careful observations brought to light creatures that exist nowhere else on earth.

Darwin sparked a debate that is still raging 165 years later. And the question is this: How does new life begin?

Darwin called this the "mystery of mysteries."

The Galápagos is still probably the best place on earth to explore the theory of evolution. The creatures that arrived here developed and changed over the millennia in unique ways. The islands thus became a Petri dish of sorts, and the creatures in it an experiment.

The experiment has been running now since the islands popped out of the sea some five million years ago. Scientists have the benefit of observing the results. But now, just as they're starting to make sense of what they see, the experiment is getting contaminated.

During GalápagosQuest, we gathered data, interviewed scientists, talked with locals and made observations. In general, the beauty and uniqueness of these islands impressed us. The dedicated people of the Galápagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Research Station work hard to protect the islands and their wildlife.

Thanks to their efforts, the endangered giant tortoises are beginning to recover and many animals, such as sea lions, marine iguanas and blue-footed boobies are doing well. We found no ozone low-haze levels and excellent water quality.

But we also found that some 60 new species enter the Galápagos each year – species that contaminate the Petri dish, so to speak.

Each week, we have zoomed in on one of the main environmental issues facing the Galápagos. We reported both sides of the story and then asked our 80,000 online collaborators to decide how the issues should be handled. Here are the results:

Week 1: Eradicate 100,000 goats (introduced by humans) to save 600 giant tortoises on Isabela Island? Online collaborators' answer: Eradicate the goats.

Week 2: Close the season on sea cucumbers (which clean the sea bottom) even though it threatens local fishermen's ability to make a living? Online collaborators' answer: Protect the sea cucumber.

Week 3: Should tourists be limited to reduce introduced species even if it means drastically cutting conservation funds? Online collaborators' answer: Limit tourism.

In each case, the results came down soundly on the side of the environment. We are not the first to recognize the problem here. In 1978 UNESCO named the Galápagos a World Heritage Site, meaning that it has protection from the international community.

Still, the islands continued to deteriorate.

So, in 1995, monitors recommended putting the Galápagos Islands on a list of World Heritage Sites in Danger. This would have meant focusing international attention on the environmental crisis here. Ecuador fought the listing and, in the end, UNESCO decided not to add it to this list.

Some improvements have been made since then, including passing a special law to deal with environmental problems. Many scientists and conservationists, however, think that the problems continue to merit the "in danger" status.

Moreover, in direct violation of the "Special Law," Ecuador's Ministry of the Environment plans to open the sea cucumber season.

Dan Buettner (Visit his Web site.)

We believe that this world treasure should be put on UNESCO's World Heritage Sites in Danger list. To accomplish this goal, we have drafted a proclamation that sums up our findings.

We will deliver it to the Director General of UNESCO, Ecuador's president and others. All have the power to help protect the Galápagos.

Meanwhile, GalapagosQuest continues. This week, Jean Michel Cousteau and the Dive Masters from Pacific Wilderness join us as we go underwater. We will dive 20 sites from the top to bottom of the Galápagos to see how well undersea creatures have fared compared to their terrestrial cousins.

E-mail Dan, visit his Quest Network Web site and find more of his journal in our archives.

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