Tourism will wreck the wonders of the Galápagos – where animal and plant life is being wiped out by the arrival of aggressive new species – unless action is taken soon, writes Carole Cadwalladr
Opening what looks like the drawer of an office filing cabinet, Gustavo Jimenez, a scientist at the Charles Darwin Foundation on the Galápagos, reaches inside, rummages around for a bit, and then pulls out not a report or a file, but a massive stuffed albatross. It's about the size of a toddler, just one of hundreds of stuffed birds and animals in the foundation's vertebrate collection.
We have already seen a stuffed Baltra Island iguana, a 4ft-long, scaly, dragon-like creature that was successfully brought back from near-extinction in the 1930s, but has the misfortune to live on one of the two islands that have an airport. About once a month, Jimenez receives a body that has been flattened by a bus or landed on by an aircraft.
Then there are the finches, the songbirds that inspired Charles Darwin to formulate the theory of evolution. It was the differing length of their beaks that helped lead him to the notion that they had evolved differently according to their environment. Now they are roadkill. "There are now so many people living in the highlands," says Jimenez. "So many cars. It's impossible to estimate how many are run over a year, but at least 10,000." To put this in context, there are only just over 100 left of the most endangered type, the mangrove finch.
In the filing cabinets of life on these islands, the waved albatross – the only albatross to live in the tropics – is just another Galápagan hard-luck story: regularly caught up in fishing nets, it's on the critically endangered species list with a "high risk of extinction in the wild".
The collection is supposed to be a catalogue of life, but increasingly it looks more like one of death. Of species threatened. Disappearing. Missing. Of an entire ecosystem under threat. Because there is nowhere quite like the Galápagos. In every sense. For its profound isolation in the Pacific Ocean, its unique biodiversity – home to hundreds of endemic species – and for its pristine, untouched environment.
Except, as even a glance around the harbour of Puerto Ayora, the main town on the island of Santa Cruz, will show you, it's no longer pristine. A filmy slick of oil shines on the surface of the water where hundreds of boats wait to receive the next intake of tourists. And beyond is a large town, a mess of shanty suburbs and half-finished hotels. The ground water is contaminated and there's no proper sewerage. Dozens and dozens of Toyota pickups wait to ferry the tourists around.
What many people don't realise is that the Galápagos, as well as being one of the most fragile environments on Earth, is also is one of the fastest-growing economies in South America. Per capita income is higher here than anywhere else in Ecuador. Nearly 40,000 people have made their home here, drawn by tourism, and with them have come hundreds of introduced species, invasive plants and an infrastructure that simply can't cope.
For anyone who grew up watching David Attenborough and giant tortoises on Life on Earth, it's a shock. This isn't what Charles Darwin's earthly paradise is meant to look like, although Noemi D'Ozouville, an earth scientist who lives in Puerto Ayora and studies freshwater dynamics, sighs when I say this. "That's the thing with the stories about the Galápagos: it's either paradise or paradise in crisis."
The problem with this is that it is in crisis. In the bowels of the Charles Darwin Foundation, Henri Herrera, an entomologist, pulls out drawers of preserved ants. They're his specialist field – he points out that Darwin studied them too – but new types of ants keep arriving all the time. In aircraft, on boats, in the bags of tourists, in cargo shipments. "I sampled two boats and found 600 different species of insects in my traps. If you look at graphs of tourism and invasive species, they go absolutely together."
It's not difficult to understand the threat. He pulls out a drawer of native endemic ants and then a recent introduction, a bigheaded ant. It's not just its head that is bigger. "The thing is that invertebrates are crucial to the ecosystem. If you destroy them, you destroy the ecosystem; it's at the base of it all."
It's this conflict between man and nature that's at the heart of a new exhibition on the Galápagos at the Bluecoat arts centre in Liverpool. It's the result of a initiative by the Gulbenkian Foundation and the Galápagos Conservation Trust. Over a period of four years, they have sent 11 artists to the islands and the exhibition, featuring works as diverse as photographs of cockfighting by Jeremy Deller, the sound of sharks underwater by Kaffe Matthews and, most arrestingly of all, footage of Marcus Coates dressed up as a bird, in a cardboard box, with a cardboard beak and cardboard wings, wandering the streets of Puerto Ayora.
Four years on, he's still vividly remembered. Enrique Ramos, owner and editor of the Galápagos newspaper El Colono, said it had been a startling moment. Coates had dressed up as a booby – the blue-footed bird that inhabits the islands – and received an amazed reaction from residents. "It was a kind of communication that was totally new for us. To dress up like this. As a way of expressing feelings. People hadn't seen that before."
But the shock worked both ways. "I had no idea that anyone even lived on the Galápagos," says Coates. "There's this huge conflict between people and animals and this bizarre situation where people are almost second-class citizens compared to the wildlife." The impact on his art has been profound, he says; it's made him entirely rethink what it is to be human.
Coates's work explored the interaction of animals and people, but what's abundantly clear if you spend any time at all on the Galápagos is that the needs of human habitation and the needs of preserving a pristine environment intact are incompatible.
"It's unsustainable," says Felipe Cruz, the director of technical assistance at the Charles Darwin Foundation. "There's constantly more, more, more. More flights, more hotels, more cars. It's uncontrolled. We talk about ecotourism but in reality it's already showing signs of being mass tourism. People aren't even coming for the wildlife any more. They just come for a vacation."
Everywhere there are signs of stress. On Isabela Island, Maximilian Martin takes us on a tour of the rubbish dump where feral cats roam and of a defunct sewerage plant. "An international organisation spent something like £485,000 on it, but the local people didn't know how to use it. So now the waste is just going into the ground untreated. Technically, the problems are solved. The expertise is here. The problem is social."
Martin works for the WWF conservation group and Isabela now has a successful recycling programme. It's not that efforts aren't being made to address the problem, just that the scale of it is so enormous. Mile upon mile of the countryside around Puerto Villamil, Isabela's main town, has been smothered by an invasive creeper. On Santa Cruz, a type of blackberry, impossible to remove, has overrun the highlands, destroying vast tracts of habitat.
Yet it is still an extraordinary place. Even in Isabela's port, among the boats and the noise, there are penguins and stingrays and pelicans and when I go for a swim, I end up frolicking with a group of sea lions that behave more like a litter of puppies. At one point, one of them swims away and returns with a stick.
It's heartbreaking to see what is happening to the islands. Dorothy Cross, an Irish artist who participated in the programme, had visited the Galápagos 12 years previously, and was shocked by how much it had changed. "I really felt disquiet. Being there felt like a very difficult predicament. I live in nature and a lot of my work is rooted in nature and in the Galápagos this extraordinariness is being undermined by tourism and money."
All of the artists returned, says Cross, "a bit disheartened and anxious". As a tourist, whisked off on a boat, you do not necessarily see the towns and one of the key ideas behind the scheme was to provide people with another view of the islands. Robert Silbermann, the chief executive of the Galápagos Conservation Trust, says that sending the artists to the islands was intended to give people a different angle on the place. "If you look at some of the work, cockfighting and unfinished houses and buildings, these are not the usual images of the Galápagos that you see.
"What's clear," he adds, "is that things have to change. Things can't continue in the way they have been. There is a need to take action now. It can't wait five years".
But what action? Art will not save the Galápagos, but maybe it can provide a sense of urgency. It's not clear what else will. In a long interview, Godfrey Merlen, a British biologist who came to the islands in the early 1970s and never left, tries to remain positive, but admits he struggles. He studies the vermilion flycatcher, a bird that was abundant when he arrived, which is now, on the inhabited islands, vanishing before his eyes.
When Merlen first came, inspired by the environmental message of Rachel Carson's The Silent Spring, the occasional supply ship was the only way in and the only means of communication was a single radio. The isolation that made the Galápagos unique is no more. In Puerto Ayora, schoolchildren hang out in the port checking their emails and South America's newly rich pop over for a weekend minibreak.
The lives and livelihoods of 40,000 people can't be ignored, but according to Merlen, the Galápagos are the world's Petri dish. They have to be saved. "Because if we can't save Galápagos, then we can't save anywhere."
The Gulbenkian Galápagos artists' residency programme was organised by the Galápagos Conservation Trust in partnership with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. The exhibition runs until 1 July 2012 at the Bluecoat arts centre in Liverpool and moves to Edinburgh's Fruitmarket gallery from 2 November to 13 January 2013. To find out more, visit www.artistsvisitgalapagos.com. An accompanying book, also called Galápagos, is available to buy for £10.99 from www.centralbooks.co.uk.
[Tourists on the beach wait for the perfect shot, via Shutterstock.com.]