Conservation through Tourism in the Galapagos – a Needed Interview, Part 2
In Part 1 of my interview with Executive Director of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association (IGTOA), Matt Kareus, we discussed the organization’s mission and role in the Galapagos, and we took a dive into the implications of climate change for the archipelago. Here we continue that conversation in the second of a two-part interview:
Me. We last discussed climate change and its impact on the Galapagos. Beyond that, what are the (other) greatest threats/challenges and opportunities for the archipelago?
Matt. We believe that introduced species pose the greatest threat to the archipelago, by far. There are more than 1,300 introduced plant and animal species in the Galapagos Islands today. Some of them are harmless, but others can have catastrophic impacts by preying upon or out-competing native and endemic species and by upsetting the balance of natural ecosystems. Today, several endemic Galapagos species face the very real threat of extinction because of the impact of these invaders. The mangrove finch, for example, is down to fewer than one hundred individuals in the wild due to an introduced fly species whose larvae devour nestlings.
In recent decades, growth in tourism and the corresponding growth in the human population of the islands have gravely exacerbated the problem, since flights and cargo shipments from the mainland are the primary vectors for the introduction of new species. This is why IGTOA has made improving the biosecurity of the archipelago one of our top priorities. Since 2012, we’ve given over $100,000 to the non-profit WildAid in support of its efforts to improve cargo handling and quarantine procedures between the mainland and the islands. This year, we donated $25,000 to WildAid so they could procure a K-9 sniffer dog unit that will help identify harmful cargo before it reaches the islands.
Me. Wow – that makes me think back to my early days of travel to the Galapagos, after trekking around the Ecuadorian Amazon or up in the Andes, and wonder what I could have even brought in on my shoes! Keeping that in mind, what are the broader implications of tourism in the Galapagos Islands?
Matt. Galapagos tourism is tricky and it’s getting trickier. The popularity of the islands as a tourism destination has skyrocketed over the last few decades. With more and more people arriving each year, we feel it is incumbent upon our industry to help meet the conservation challenges head on. In the last few years, land-based tourism has overtaken boat-based tourism as the most popular way to see the islands. This has brought on a whole new set of challenges. Boat-based tourism was pretty much the only game in town for a long time and it’s pretty well managed. There are a certain number of boats that are allowed to operate and they are only allowed to go to certain places at certain times.
The challenge with land-based tourism at this point is that there really isn’t an upper limit on the number of people who can participate. And as more people come to stay on land, there is pressure to build more hotels, open new restaurants and offer new activities. The government of Ecuador has to figure out how to balance competing interests of conservation, visitors, and local people who want jobs and opportunities in the tourism sector as well as the national interest of bringing more visitors into the country.
But these issues aren’t just limited to Galapagos. Destinations around the world are dealing with similar challenges. In this sense, I think the Galapagos Islands are a living laboratory for tourism and conservation. If we can’t figure out how to solve the tough problems here, it’s probably going to be really hard to figure them out in a lot of other places that don’t have the same international profile or where people just aren’t as concerned.
Me. How can people help?
Matt. The most obvious way to help is to donate money to organizations that are working on the front lines of conservation and education. And people can have an impact by choosing tour operators that are doing things the right way and who are giving back themselves. Natural Habitat Adventures’ relationship with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and IGTOA is a great example of a partnership between the tourism industry and a conservation organization that can bring real conservation benefits to the islands, while allowing folks to experience a top quality wildlife tour to the islands first hand.
Me. Great to catch up, as always, and thanks for all of the hard work that you are doing with the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association!