Graham Watkins: Runaway tourism threatens the future of the Galapagos Islands

Very few places in the world have influenced humanity as much as the Galapagos Islands, and they have a pivotal year ahead. 2009 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species, and the 50th anniversaries of the foundation of the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Park. But for all their importance, the islands are still under threat.

Today, this extraordinary archipelago, which has inspired countless visitors, is the premier natural environment in the world: one of the last well-conserved tropical archipelagos we have, and home to numerous unique species.

Since Charles Darwin's 1835 visit and his use of the islands to illustrate evolution and adaptive radiation in the Origin of Species, the islands have been the focus of additional important research in understanding natural selection. But the islands were long host to whalers and colonists too, who left a series of legacies. These include the decimation of tortoise populations and the introduction of many new species that have wreaked havoc on the native flora and fauna.

The islands are better conserved today than they were 100 years ago. Unfortunately, the runaway development of tourism means that the Galapagos are at risk again. Economic growth in the islands has drawn immigrants and increased the risks of new and increasingly dangerous, invasive species arriving. Resolving this problem will require strengthening governance, ensuring sustainable tourism, developing an island culture and continuing to restore the islands.

The solutions will be led by the people of Ecuador and will necessarily involve ensuring the standard of living of Galapagos residents. But it is the co-responsibility of the world to support the government of Ecuador in the process. We can conserve Galapagos, but only through the concerted actions of all of the actors. If we can achieve sustainability, the value to the world will extend well beyond saving one of the last remaining natural treasures, to being a model for sustainable societies everywhere.

Dr Graham Watkins, executive eirector of the Charles Darwin Foundation, was speaking last night as part of Galapagos Day.