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Saving Galapagos: Charles Darwin Foundation Conserves an Ecological Treasure

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The world has been fascinated by the Galapagos Islands ever since Charles Darwin published his groundbreaking book on evolutionary theory, On the Origin of Species, in 1859. But the fragile ecosystems of this extraordinarily unique archipelago have been in danger even longer, dating back to the 17th and 18 centuries, when whalers and pirates began depleting the whale and tortoise population.
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Fortunately, the Charles Darwin Foundation has been actively working since 1959 to conserve this unique ecological treasure. The privately-funded NGO has helped to save the Galapagos Tortoise, helped create the Galapagos Marine Reserve, eradicated invasive animals that were endangering endemic species, and advised the Ecuadorian government on how to protect Galapagos National Park for future generations.

International Expeditions recently spoke with Charles Darwin Foundation Executive Director Swen Lorenz, covering the history and evolution of the organization, its conservation successes, and the challenges it faces with increased tourism to the islands.
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Let's start off talking about the Foundation's background.

The Charles Darwin Foundation is scientific advisor to the Government of Ecuador when it comes to conservation of the Galapagos Islands. Operating the Charles Darwin Research Station in Santa Cruz Island, we have 150 scientists working with us to create the knowledge necessary to protect this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

CDF has been holding that role since 1959, with all our work being privately funded through donations. CDF was founded the same year the Galapagos National Park was established.  Its founding was the result of a collaboration between the IUCN, UNESCO, the Ecuadorian Government, and a number of individuals.
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Can you discuss the Foundation's most important projects?

Among our most successful projects is the breeding of giant tortoises, which started in the 1960s. These animals, which have given Galapagos their name, were on the brink of extinction. Today, the population is at around 50,000 animals and not a single giant tortoise species is facing the risk of extinction. Visitors can see them in large numbers in the wild, just as Charles Darwin did when he arrived in Galapagos.

We researched the baseline data necessary to create the Galapagos Marine Reserve, the world's 4th largest. We have trained more than 2,000 Ecuadorian students. We’ve eradicated invasive species that harmed local biodiversity, which – in the case of the rampant goat population – involved the largest eradication project ever undertaken. And all that is privately funded, without any financial support from the government.
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What makes the Galapagos Islands such a unique attraction?

What few people realize is that Galapagos was the first place to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That says a lot! This is a treasure that needs to be preserved for mankind.

Anyone who has ever visited will understand why it should be kept intact for future generations: You can wander around animals that have no fear of man, who will simply ignore you. Experiencing pristine, untamed nature is an experience most visitors describe as life-changing.

The Galapagos Islands are also a microcosm of the social, political, economic and ecological changes occurring throughout the world. As such they not only teach us about where things have come from, but they can also show us a path into the future. 

Striking a balance between the needs of humans and the natural world is particularly important in the Galapagos Islands because of their fragile ecosystems. At the same time, the relatively small, contained nature of the archipelago means that solutions are within our grasp. And these solutions can serve as models for the rest of the world!
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There are some critics who suggest that tourism to pristine ecosystems such as the Galapagos is harmful. How would you respond?

The Galapagos Islands do get a fair amount of press, and one common theme is that tourism is hurting the islands. I feel this needs to be put into context. It was the great Sir David Attenborough who said that, without tourism, the Galapagos wouldn't even exist anymore. Tourism provides a powerful incentive to preserve these islands.

Of course there are problems with tourism, and there remain many questions that need to be looked into. Increasing visitor numbers do bring additional challenges.

I would like to see the tourism industry evolve in a way that sees stronger engagement of Galapagos visitors in getting their support for funding conservation solutions. If a larger number of visitors make a contribution to CDF or other entities, we can work to find suitable solutions to the islands' problems. Tourism can be a problem, but it can also be part of the solution.

What restrictions are there to ensure that Galapagos ecotourism is responsibly managed?

There are great regulations in place, such as the system developed by the Galapagos National Park to manage the visitor sites that cruise ships can go to. I salute every tourist who books through the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association and its member comapnies (like IE) as this leads to funding coming our way, which we invest into science for conservation.

There is a real shared responsibility among all players to work together to improve the existing systems further. There is only one Galapagos, and we need to pull together. Our organization’s view is, “Visit, but please visit responsibly.”
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Can you talk about the role the Charles Darwin Foundation plays in educating visitors about the Galapagos and responsible wildlife management?

The CDF operates the Charles Darwin Research Station, one of the top visitor sites on the island of Santa Cruz. We’ve been doing a lot to improve the quality of visitor experience there, including creating a trail for visitors to walk around, plenty of interpretation material, and installing a statue of Darwin as a young man.

We also have by far the most often visited social media channel of the Galapagos, which we use to inform and educate the public, both in English and Spanish. Follow us on www.facebook.com/darwinfoundation and www.twitter.com/darwinfound. Further investments along those lines are planned, and we are currently discussing this with the Government of Ecuador.

The CDF has very ambitious plans in the pipeline. I’d like to have the entire world aware of what is being achieved in Galapagos, not just those lucky ones who get to visit the Galapagos.
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What goals do you have for the future of the Charles Darwin Foundation?

To achieve financial sustainability. For more than 50 years, the organization has lived hand-in-mouth. At times its survival was in question. I’ve been building up the foundation's ability to earn more income, and if we continue on this path for a few more years the Charles Darwin Foundation will become financially sustainable. This will significantly improve the way we can provide science for the conservation of the Galapagos Islands.

How to Responsibly Tour the Galapagos Islands

Inspired to explore the famed Galapagos Islands? International Expeditions offers year-round Galapagos cruises along with land-based options in the islands. Check out IE's incredible Galapagos tours and start planning.

How to Help Fund Projects like CDF

International Expeditions was a founding member of IGTOA, a non-profit group dedicated to funding projects to combat invasive species and illegal activities within the Galapagos National Park, and promoting ecological education. Read here for more on Galapagos Islands conservation projects.

Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 21 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution to Rolling Stone. He is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and creative services agency Green Travel Media.
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