For centuries, these inhospitable, lava-encrusted islands were viewed as having little value, other than as a place for pirates to hideout after looting expeditions across South America. The giant tortoises were also valued for their meat, as they could be kept alive on ships during epic journeys, and it is believed that hundreds of thousands may have been removed from the islands. Goats and dogs which were introduced during this period continue to cause some of the most serious environmental damage today.Read more ▼
After the islands became Ecuadorian in 1832, they were used as a penal colony, where prisoners, living in slave-like conditions, were controlled by dogs. In 1835, a young Charles Darwin arrived on the HMS Beagle, and visited four of the islands. His groundbreaking book, On the Origin of the Species, was published 24 years after his only visit to the Galápagos, but it was still not until 1934 that the islands’ incredible biological value was fully recognised, and laws were passed to protect their unique fauna.
The Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galápagos Natural Park were eventually created in 1959 – the park now covers some 97 percent of the land, while a marine reserve protects much of the surrounding waters. The Charles Darwin Research Centre was founded, beginning the essential captive breeding and reintroduction programmes, starting with the giant tortoises. The most significant event in the islands’ rollercoaster history, however, began in the late 1960s, with the arrival of the first mass tourists.
Recent decades have brought both good and bad news to the fragile islands; a new airport and roads have created further environmental damage, yet the archipelago’s declaration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site brought more funding for its preservation and the enforcement of commercial fishing laws. These, in turn, posed a threat to the human population – who have few economic alternatives to sustain themselves on these far-flung volcanic islands.
Today, tourism is better managed than ever – yet there are also more tourists than ever. Some species which had disappeared from their native islands thanks to hunting or non-native species such as goats have been reintroduced, while others have become extinct forever – including the much-loved Lonesome George, the last remaining Pinta Island tortoise who died in 2012. Tourism growth continues, but it is now as important to the story of the Galápagos as the famous fauna and fauna. The development of the island’s largest industry will have huge impacts on its wildlife as well as its people.