When Charles Darwin first visited the Galápagos Islands nearly 200 years ago, he wrote of having discovered a ‘little world within itself’, home to thousands of species found literally nowhere else on earth.
In the era of mass global tourism, however, environmentalists have said the far-flung archipelago’s rich flora and fauna could be at risk.
But, over the last three months, things have changed. The Ecuadorean islands’ visitor economy has effectively been put on pause – and this has allowed many of its most distinctive species to thrive again, say researchers.
Sea lions, iguanas and rare seabirds have all reclaimed areas usually dominated by tourists.
As part of a new project looking at the impact of tourism of the archipelago’s wildlife, scientists from the Galápagos Science Centre, the Charles Darwin Foundation and San Francisco de Quito University are monitoring changes in behaviour among native and endemic species across 24 of the islands’ ‘tourist zones’.
Some 35 park rangers are also analysing the impact of tourism (or a lack of it) on water quality, soil erosion, vegetation cover and the seafloor. As the islands’ lockdown lifts, they intend to monitor the movements of species and the effect on natural habitats of tourists returning.
Of the research conducted so far, Danny Rueda Córdova, ecosystems director at the Galápagos National Park, told the Associated Press: ‘We’ve observed some interesting things: for example, a higher number of emblematic species on some beaches... we’ve also identified that species of sea birds, such as boobies, have made nests on the visiting trails.’
As the world creeps out of lockdown, campaigners say this is the perfect time to rethink the way we travel. News of rare wildlife bouncing back in humans’ absence should jolt a lot of us into some sort of collective action. Could the fight against over-tourism finally be on?