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Galapagos Wildlife Threatened by Mosquitoes, Further Implicating Tourists

August 13, 2009 06:00 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
Disease-ridden mosquitoes are threatening diversity in the Galapagos Islands, another indicator of the negative consequences of increased tourism there.

Mosquitoes Arriving and Breeding

Scientists from Britain and Ecuador say the pests are arriving on planes and tour boats, and spreading throughout the islands. The report confirms many experts' fear that booming tourism in the archipelago could hamper diversity; the mosquitoes carry avian malaria and West Nile, among other illnesses. In an article for Reuters, Ben Hirschler explained that genetic testing has determined that the mosquitoes are not only able to survive once arriving in the Galapagos, but they're also breeding. 

The research recalls a similar situation that occurred in Hawaii in the late 19th century, when various species of bird were decimated by the invasion of the same mosquitoes now showing up in the Galapagos, known as southern house mosquitoes.

"That we haven't already seen serious disease impacts in Galapagos is probably just a matter of luck," Leeds University researcher Simon Goodman said, particularly because tourism is increasing by about 14 percent every year, Hirschler reports.

Unfortunately, "[f]ew tourists realise the irony that their trip to the Galápagos may actually increase the risk of an ecological disaster," Goodman said, according to Caroline Davies in an article for The Guardian. Largely due to tourism, 1,321 alien species were recorded in the Galapagos in 2007, compared with only 112 in 1900, Davies reported.

Goodman asserts that it is now up to the government of Ecuador to protect biodiversity from the harmful impacts of tourism in the archipelago. But time could be running out. The Darwin Foundation warned earlier this year "that an ecological disaster might only be a decade away," Davies explained.

Background: Overpopulation, tourism and extreme weather threaten Galapagos

The Galapagos Islands face no shortage of threats, both manmade and natural. A major issue of concern among experts is overpopulation, according to a video report produced by Pailin Wedel for GlobalPost.

Tomas Cordova, a fisherman and goat hunter who resides in the Galapagos and was interviewed by Pailin, recalls a time when there were only around 200 fishermen in his area; now, there are almost 1,200. According to Jose Vicente Yepez Gutierrez, executive director of the San Cristobal Chamber of Tourism, residents of the archipelago "realize that having more than four kids with this economy is a problem," yet the problem persists.

Tourism is another looming concern among locals and experts. According to Pailin, 80 to 85 percent of people in the Galapagos make a living from tourism; the problems arise when local companies must compete for business with large touring companies from foreign countries whose profits do little to benefit locals.

Among natural threats to the Galapagos is the La Cumbre volcano on uninhabited Fernandina Island, which erupted in April for the first time in four years. Fernandina has more volcanic activity than any other island in the Galapagos, according to The Associated Press, and species such as "marine and terrestrial iguanas, sea lions and other fauna" are most at risk from the flowing lava.

Related Topic: When locals overpower developers

In March 2008, residents in La Paz, Mexico, fought to protect a pristine beach from golf courses and hotels—and won. A La Paz area group, Colectivo Balandra, submitted a petition with more than 18,000 signatures to leave the beach untouched. On March 25, after a protracted battle over the beach's fate, state officials designated about 5,000 acres of the shoreline and ocean as a legally protected Natural Area.

A similar scenario seems a possibility in the Galapagos, but Gunter Reck, a professor of ecology and Galapagos resident interviewed by Pailin for GlobalPost, expressed ambivalence over whether his fellow locals would come together to support conservation.

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