Kim Gamel, Associated Press
SANTA CRUZ, Galapagos Islands — The sea lion nursed her pup under a prickly pear cactus while an iguana clumsily marched away. A tiny penguin waddled on a rock while red and orange crabs clung to the craggy surface below.
Welcome to the Galapagos Islands, a volcanic archipelago that inspired Charles Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection after he landed there in 1835 on the HMS Beagle.
The remote islands draw an estimated 100,000 visitors a year eager for a glimpse of the unique creatures and flora that Darwin called "a little world within itself."
Darwin's theories, developed years after his voyage and discussed in "On the Origin of Species," stemmed in large part from his observation that the giant tortoises, iguanas, finches and other wildlife and plants on the remote islands were unique and even varied from island to island. He realized that the species must have originated somewhere, and they must have developed new characteristics over time to survive on the uninviting land masses.
Today after centuries of human contact, the animals and birds that inspired the British naturalist with their ability to adapt are in need of help. A thriving tourism industry, development, overfishing and poachers, have taken a toll.
Conservationists, volunteers and trained guides are working to repair the fragile tropical ecosystem, which is spread along the equator more than 600 miles west of continental Ecuador. But their efforts started relatively recently and they must balance protecting the islands with the income tourism provides for the largely impoverished human population of some 30,000.
Getting to the Galapagos is surprisingly simple, with regular flights from the Ecuadorean cities of Quito and Guayaquil. Then visitors are usually bused to a ferry or cruise ship. Authorized guides are required for shore excursions and the number of passengers and boat trips is strictly regulated.
A visit to the Charles Darwin Foundation, established on the main populated island of Santa Cruz in 1959 to spearhead preservation, was the perfect start to a five-day tour of the islands. I booked my trip with the Florida-based Latin America Reservation Center, which made all hotel and transportation arrangements and provided a detailed itinerary of island visits.
The foundation is in the Galapagos National Park, which is home to numerous rescued animals, including a tortoise that was once a pet and had holes in its shell, apparently from being used for target practice.
A tortoise conservation program began in 1965 after the reptiles — which can live for more than 200 years and weigh up to 650 pounds — were threatened by rats and other invasive species introduced by settlers and ships. Pirates and whalers also collected them, stacking them on board for fresh meat because they can live for months without food or water.
Now, tortoise eggs are collected, incubated and carefully monitored at the park. Each baby tortoise gets a number on its shell so it can eventually be repatriated on the proper island. They're kept in captivity until their shells are hard enough to defend against predators.
Such micromanagement has its limits. Witness the sole survivor of the Pinta Island tortoises, known as Lonesome George, who was found in 1971 and taken to the national park for protection. Scientists have been trying to breed him for two decades, putting two potential girlfriends in his shrub-filled pen, but so far the nearly 100-year-old tortoise has failed to produce any offspring.
Matchmakers decided the ladies were from the wrong island and introduced him in January to two new female partners from the island of Espanola that they hope are closer genetically and more compatible.
The United Nations cited progress when it removed the Galapagos, which consists of 19 main islands and a marine reserve, from its list of endangered World Heritage sites in 2010.
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