Upon arriving in the Galapagos Islands, visitors are greeted with a sign depicting a giant tortoise and a hammerhead shark. These are the official symbols of Galapagos National Park and Marine Reserve, one of the world’s most pristine nature areas.
The Galapagos archipelago’s more than 230 islands and islets are protected by the Galapagos National Park (7,970 square kilometers / 3,077 square miles) and the Galapagos Marine Reserve (covering 133,000 square kilometers / 51,352 square miles). The conservation of these areas took many years. The national park’s founding is often said to be 1959, though its roots go back several decades more. The marine reserve would be much later in coming.
The Beginnings of Galapagos Conservation
In the 1930s, the impact of humans – pirates and whalers, and later colonists – on the Galapagos archipelago’s delicate ecosystem was beginning to show. Giant tortoises had disappeared from some islands, and a rash of non-native plants were taking over the landscape.
Several institutions, including the British Museum and the California Academy of Sciences, expressed their concern about the Galapagos’ future. With the centenary of British naturalist Charles Darwin’s visit, the Ecuadorian government moved to protect the Galapagos Islands.
In 1934, Executive Decree 607 protected sensitive species, banned the hunting of giant tortoises and restricted yacht and ship traffic into the Galapagos archipelago. With Supreme Decree 31 in 1936, Ecuador declared the islands a national reserve. This was the country’s first protected nature area. The decree also established a scientific commission for the islands’ conservation.
But implementation of these protections was difficult. Resources were scarce and the Galapagos were too far away from the central government to guarantee the effective enforcement of the laws.
The Push to Save the Galapagos
With the 100-year anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s revolutionary Theory of Evolution, the international scientific community again pushed for protection of the Galapagos Islands.
In the early 1950s, prominent scientists like Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt and Robert Bowman lobbied for better protection of the Galapagos. Upon the presentation of their field studies, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, UNESCO and other international bodies recommended immediate action be taken.
In mid-1959, Ecuador made the Galapagos Islands a national park. This new law also banned the capture of iguanas, giant tortoises and other species. Port captains became the appointed authorities for implementation of the new regulations.
Also in 1959, the Charles Darwin Foundation was established and work immediately began to control and eradicate invasive species, like goats on South Plaza Island. The Charles Darwin Research Station, the center for scientific research on the islands’ species and preservation, officially opened in 1964. The station’s work also included training Ecuadorians in conservation issues.
But true protection of the Galapagos Islands was still more than a decade away.
Ecuador did not have a national park service until 1968, when it appointed its first two conservation officers. Ministerial Accord 690A of 1969 defined the boundaries of the Galapagos National Park and set aside three percent of the area for agricultural and urban use, and legally established Ecuador’s National Park Service. The first park superintendent was appointed in 1972, the same year that construction of the Galapagos National Park buildings began. By 1973, 18 park staff members were on board. The first National Park Master Plan was published in 1974.
Galapagos National Park Grows
Over the next few decades, Galapagos National Park grew in both world recognition and in size of protected area.
Galapagos National Park’s importance flourished when UNESCO declared it one of the first World Heritage Sites in 1978. This honor rests on four criteria, including the abundant variety of underwater life, and the islands’ unique flora and fauna on land. In 1984, UNESCO gave the Galapagos Islands further recognition by naming it a Biosphere Reserve.
In 2002, the 872-hectare Humedales del Sur de Isabela, which includes the Poza de los Diablos and coastal and marine wetlands near Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island, were placed on Ramsar’s list of Wetlands of International Importance.
During these years, the size of the Galapagos protected areas also grew. In 1986, the seas around the islands were declared a Marine Resource Reserve with the goal to control illegal fishing and use of marine resources. In 1998, the implementation of the Special Regime Law for the Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Province of the Galapagos led to the creation of the Galapagos Marine Reserve. This is one of the world’s largest marine reserves.
The Ecuadorian government took further measures to protect the Galapagos Islands by declaring a 38,000-square kilometer (15,000-square mile) marine sanctuary around Darwin and Wolf Islands. Studies by the Galapagos National Park and international partners show that this is an important resting and birthing ground for a variety of shark species.
Challenges Galapagos National Park Faces
In 2007, UNESCO placed the Galapagos Islands on the list of endangered world heritage sites, citing threats of invasive species, uncontrolled tourism and over-fishing. Because of the Ecuador government’s measures to address these problems, the Galapagos were removed from the endangered list in 2010.
One problem that has haunted the Galapagos since humans first began going to them is the introduction of invasive species like black rats and blackberry bushes. These pose a grave threat to the islands’ endemic plants and wildlife, and have caused the extinction of several species. In 1998, Galapagos National Park instituted inspections of all luggage and other items traveling to the Galapagos from the mainland and between the islands. This measure is to prevent the introduction and spread of foreign species.
Another long-standing threat Galapagos National Park faces is illegal fishing. The area to be patrolled is immense, yet resources are scarce. Ships are periodically encountered with holds full of sharks, sea cucumbers or other protected species. In mid-2017, a flotilla of Chinese fishing boats was caught with 6,600 sharks from Galapagos waters.
Galapagos National Park, in partnership with national and international organizations and universities, continues its important work of studying and preserving the islands’ environment. Since the national park’s foundation, it has spearheaded the recovery of land iguana and giant tortoise populations. A new project focuses on bringing the Floreana tortoise back from extinction, which will be a new addition to island visitors’ wildlife checklists.