The life of Lonesome George, most famous of the huge, long-lived reptiles inhabiting the remote tropical archipelago, has been threatened by the more desperate and criminal elements involved in the fishing and processing of sea cucumbers.
The abundance of these lowly creatures has created a reckless biological "goldrush" in the islands, with booms in population and the economy. But conservationists and many of the 12,000 islanders fear the exploitation of the Galapagos' natural resources will destroy the all-important tourist industry and the unique wildlife which led Darwin towards his theory of evolution.
Sea cucumbers are a simple form of animal life which move very slowly along shallow sea beds eating algae and detritus. One species, Isostichopus fuscus, is a delicacy throughout China and South-east Asia, where it is sought-after for its supposed medicinal properties.
Consequently this rusty brown, eight-inch-long creature has been fished out across much of the Pacific, including the seas just off Ecuador which owns the Galapagos. Ecuadorian fishermen and the middle-men involved in selling the boiled and dried sea cucumbers to the Far East moved in on the Galapagos a few years ago. The creatures are worth about 12p each to the producer - a great deal of money in a poor country when one diver can pick several hundred off the sea bed in one day.
But the rush threatened to wipe out an animal near the base of the food chain in the marine nature reserve which surrounds the archipelago. So, last year the Ecuadorian government set a sea cucumber quota - half a million to be taken during a three-monthfishing season which began in mid-November, with certain areas off limits.
Within weeks it became obvious that the quota had already been exceeded several times over and the rules were being flouted, so shortly before Christmas the fishing was banned. Earlier this month angry fishermen and sea cucumber traders blockaded the offices of the organisations they identify with the detested conservationists - the Charles Darwin Research Station and the headquarters of the national park service, both on the island of St Lucia.
An anonymous threat was broadcast on local television against Lonesome George who was found to be the sole surviving giant tortoise on the island of Pinta 20 years ago. Aged about 80, he now resides at a research station. Director Chantalle Blancon said that George, who is in the middle of a "delicate breeding programme" has had to go into hiding before because of the threats: "We're just going to keep watch on him.''
The government sent an official to negotiate with the fishermen and he agreed 30 extra days of fishing. But Fisheries Minister Jose Vincente Maldonada said the deal was unacceptable and the ban would remain in place pending a two month evaluation. With 1
00 marines and police flown in from the mainland the protesters are currently holding back from further demonstrations.
Meanwhile conservationists accuse Ecuador's weak coalition government of failing to safeguard one of the earth's most significant wildlife sites. Dr Blancon of the research station says the sea cucumber trade has brought a get-rich-quick mentality to theGalapagos. There are 400 licensed local fishermen and 200 to 400 unlicensed recent arrivals.
Peter Kramer, a senior conservation officer with the World Wide Fund for Nature in Geneva and a former head of the Darwin research station, said he would return the merit medal Ecuador had awarded him. "If the sea cucumbers must be exploited then it should be sustainable - not this sudden rush,'' he said. "It's like pulling all the earthworms out of the ground.''Reuse content