BGU experts to help preserve Galapagos Islands

Ben-Gurion University will help preserve the biodiversity of Galapagos Islands, conserving endangered biological diversity.

May 25, 2013 22:31
3 minute read.
A Galapagos giant tortoise is pictured during its annual weighing at Riga Zoo July 12, 2012.

Turtle (its actually a tortoise) good generic 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ints Kalnins )

The exotic Galapagos Islands, which lie on the equator about 1,000 kilometers off the west coast of South America, are a treasure trove of unusual animal species because of their isolation for thousands of years. They have eroded over the millennia, making them much smaller today, but they still provoke much curiosity and wonder. The islands, which are owned by Ecuador, prompted Charles Darwin almost two centuries ago to formulate some of the central principles of his theory of evolution after he visited and studied the creatures living there.

Now Ben-Gurion University of the Negev will help preserve the biodiversity of the Galapagos Islands. Prof. Ariel Novoplansky of BGU’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research recently signed an agreement recently with the Galapagos National Park to promote the conservation of the endangered biological diversity of the islands.

The BGU experts, invited to the islands by the Ecuador’s ministry of environment and the directorate of the national park, held meetings and went on field excursions with managers, rangers, policy-makers, farmers and conservation experts. The visit ended with the signing of a cooperation agreement to figure out the best ways to minimize the detrimental effects of invasive species to the biodiversity, natural habitats and agricultural areas of the archipelago.

Novoplansky, who was accompanied by several Israeli colleagues, explained that in addition to the fact that the islands offer a comfortable climate, wild vistas and excellent conditions for a variety of nature and sport activities, they are also rare natural laboratories where the special ecological conditions and extreme isolation create unique and stunningly beautiful biological diversity.

Their biodiversity, however, is neither greater nor more unique than that of other archipelagos such as the Hawaiian or the Canary Islands. What makes these islands unique is their recent history – while most of the major archipelagos around the world had been discovered by the 16th century, most of the other archipelagos were rapidly settled by man, and their ecological systems had been rapidly degraded, or even totally devastated.

During all that time, the Galapagos Islands were rather neglected – occasionally frequented by whale hunters and pirates, which hardly affected its unique ecosystems.

Since Ecuador annexed the Galapagos 180 years ago and only started to settle it less than a century ago, its rare natural treasures have been mostly preserved until very recently. But the relief from human intervention has abruptly ended and in spite of over 50 years of dedicated management and conservation of 97 percent of the area of the archipelago and its surrounding waters by the authorities of the Galapagos National Park, the conservation policies must urgently change.

“In spite of excellent management and meticulous policing of eco-tourism, a full-blown ecological disaster is unfolding before our eyes, inflicted by the devastating effects of invasive species,” said Novoplansky.

Rising demand is pushing for ever-increasing rates of development of the local tourism industry, which encourages greater imports of various goods, food and fresh agriculture produce from the mainland. Without any external intervention, labor and production costs on the islands are much higher than on the mainland, dictating the abandonment of most of the island’s farms and the transition of most of the islands’ workforce to the tourism industry. These processes expose the unique and sensitive biodiversity of the islands to the extremely destructive effects of invasive species such as feral domestic animals, aggressive weeds, various insect pests and alien marine organisms.

Increasing numbers of such organisms arrive at the islands through the delivery routes from the mainland and multiply with great vigor in both natural ecosystems and abandoned farms, overcoming the local fauna and flora and changing entire ecosystems existing nowhere else in the world.

Competing for the same natural resources, agriculture and nature conservation are usually considered competing and antagonistic forces, but not so in the Galapagos.

“The current project is based on a new premise, whereby agricultural developmental is not necessarily used as a powerful toolbox for increasing food production, fighting poverty and improving standard of living.

In fragile places like the Galapagos, sensible conservation strategies may take advantage of carefully-crafted agricultural practices to combat and prevent the destructive effects of invasive species to unique ecosystems and endangered biodiversity, the fate of which we are all so anxious about,” concluded Novoplansky.

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