Opinion

Opinion | Shulamit Reinharz

A lesson from Ecuador in saving our national parks

A worker removes an iguana from a landing strip at Seymour Airport on the island of Baltra in the Galapagos. The US Green Building Council has declared Seymour the world’s first ecological airport.
Dolores Ochoa/Associated Press/File
A worker removed an iguana from a landing strip at Seymour Airport on the island of Baltra in the Galapagos. The US Green Building Council has declared Seymour the world’s first ecological airport.

The Galapagos Islands are at the top of many people’s lists of places to visit. I was no exception. So, a week after my recent retirement, I flew off to the famous site where Charles Darwin began to develop his theory of evolution.

When my husband and I arrived at the Baltra airport, the only one in the Galapagos, we were screened for seeds or anything that might sprout. Then, for one glorious week, we snorkeled with sea lions, hiked cautiously among hundreds of land iguanas sunning themselves on lava beds, carefully kayaked into shoreline caves, and discovered blue-footed boobies and giant land tortoises right on the path. We marveled at whales frolicking with dolphins and sharks swimming in the light emitted by our ship at night. We loved watching the glamorously colored Sally Lightfoot crabs scuttle across the sand. We playfully tried to get non-mocking mockingbirds to caw and flightless cormorants to fly. We identified the famous Darwin finches but were baffled to discover penguins at the equator. Most impressive were the male frigatebirds that wiggled their enormous bright red pouches to attract mates.

My takeaway, however, is not just the pleasure of visiting these gentle animals in whose home we were guests. Rather, it’s what we can learn from the Ecuadorians to help us sustain and save the national parks in the United States, with their own unique wildlife.

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In part because tourism is now carefully controlled, the Galapagos archipelago can support animals and plants that live in balance with and among each other. This equilibrium has been achieved not through a chain of predators but rather through the harmonious interaction of birds, animals, plants, ocean currents, and volcanic activity. Nevertheless, each island’s ecosystem continues to be vulnerable to one animal — the human. To counterbalance that threat, international pressure was exerted effectively on the Ecuadorian government, in 1959, to declare the islands a national park for which they would be responsible. Jut as significant was the introduction of science, in the form of the Charles Darwin Research Station, established on Santa Cruz Island five years later.

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In the past, sailors in the area overfished whales and captured land tortoises for food on their long voyages. Some people brought dogs and cats that have become feral. But one of the worst offenders was the goat (which also became feral), imported to provide food and milk for people who moved to the islands (immigration is now extremely limited by the Galapagos Special Law of 1998). Without natural predators, the goats reproduced at an extraordinary rate and ate all the vegetation in sight on a few islands.

The “goat episode” was the turning point in the modern history of the islands. Officially called Project Isabela (the name of the island with the worst goat infestation), it is a story of resounding success.

Our own Yellowstone National Park was established by Congress in 1872. According to its website, Yellowstone is one of the last nearly intact natural ecosystems in the temperate zone of earth. “[This ecosystem operates] in an ecological context that has been less subject to human alteration than most others throughout the nation and throughout the world. This makes the park an invaluable natural reserve and a reservoir of information valuable to humanity.” Between 150 and 200 scientists receive research permits each year.

In Ecuador, government financial and regulatory intervention, along with widely publicized research projects and voluntary contributions of labor and funds, combined to save the islands’ native plants and animals from goat-induced extinction. As a result, tortoises, cacti, and other flora and fauna continue to exist, and we humans can continue to visit them.

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Project Isabela (1997-2007) became the largest, most ambitious ecosystem restoration project in a protected area worldwide. Its goal was the complete removal of all feral goats from Pinta, Santiago, and northern Isabela, followed by the reestablishment of natural ecological conditions and evolutionary processes. The successful effort gave birth to other projects to rid the islands of human-introduced donkeys and pigs. At the same time as the government and scientists eliminated these introduced species, they designed other projects to rescue and increase the population of animals, such as the endangered land tortoise, by creating special protected breeding areas. To date, 2,000 tortoises have been “repatriated” to the islands whose tortoises had starved to death.

We should thank the government of Ecuador and its scientific and volunteer allies for saving the Galapagos for future tourism and sparing some of its unique species from extinction. In our own country, President Trump donated $78,000 (his salary from his first 10 days in office) to the National Park Service. At the same time, however, he slashed the budget of the Department of the Interior to historically low levels. Trump cannot be allowed to put Yellowstone and our other great parks on the endangered list. Instead, he, like all of us, must be stewards of the earth.

If the country of Ecuador, whose GDP represents 0.16 percent of the world’s economy, can save species and ecosystems, how much more can we achieve with our economy, representing 30 percent of the world’s GDP? We’ve got the money; we just need the will.

Shulamit Reinharz is professor emerita of sociology at Brandeis University.