By Veronika Huebl
When, on your tenth anniversary, you are given the opportunity to carry out a relatively freely definable project for six months, independent of location, with full pay - what do you plan? As a linguist and lecturer for communication with two children and a lot of international experience, the content of the project should focus on communication and knowledge transfer in a different cultural context and be geographically arranged in such a way that a nine-year-old and a six-year-old can experience as much as possible, but are exposed to as few dangers as possible. We chose Galápagos for six months: a breathtaking animal world on volcanic island soil with a highly interesting social constellation should offer enough potential for all of us to connect with - and so it was. From August 2019 to January 2020, we got to know the islands and their inhabitants.
Protection and problems of the unique archipelago
Although we arrived without any particular biologically motivated interest and without any corresponding previous education, what impressed us most were the efforts, visible and perceptible everywhere, to protect this unique fauna and flora and to reverse, at least to some extent, the damage that the largest and most dangerous of all invasive species, man, has caused over centuries. After all, everything that threatens the endemic and native island inhabitants has been introduced by humans at some point, from feral farm animals to rapidly multiplying plants and pests such as blackberry, guava or rats and mice, to accentuated climate phenomena.
In many conversations with national park rangers over the weeks and months, we learned more and more details about the projects of the national park and the Charles Darwin Research Station. We got to know the male turtle Diego, the savior of the Española turtles, and are even more pleased that he and his friends can now enjoy their twilight years back on Española. We learned why the Floreana turtles were thought to be extinct, but now there are some again, and that now, almost ten years after the death of Lonesome George, there is apparently hope again for the Pinta turtles. At the same time, we experienced the fight against rats and feral domestic cats, read a lot about the success story of the eradication of goats, and hoped that a cure would soon be found for the Philornis downsi, a fly that lays its eggs in birds' nests and whose newly hatched larvae then feed on the blood of the newly hatched birds, thus often killing them. In this way, for example, they have already almost wiped out the Ruby-throated Flycatcher on Santa Cruz.
There is widespread consensus that humans are entirely to blame for upsetting the biological balance on the archipelago, but it will take enormous efforts to change life on the islands accordingly - this was confirmed both by the locals and by our own experiences and observations. Corresponding regulations and laws came into force years ago, but are only now slowly being implemented.
The population grew quite uncontrollably until recently. Restrictive entry regulations for international tourists as well as mainland Ecuadorians were supposed to curb the population growth. However, there are still many residents without valid residence permits. As the population grows, there is also more and more traffic. For a private car, one has to make a justified request; the vast majority of vehicles on the islands are taxis. During shorter waiting times of less than 15 minutes, they usually stand around with the engine running. Petrol is dirt cheap due to massive government subsidies, so there is no incentive to use it sparingly. Pets are not without problems either - namely when they breed unintentionally and uncontrollably, the young animals then disappear into the vastness of the national park and feed on iguana and turtle eggs, for example. Another problem is the waste, only a small part of which is processed on the islands and otherwise has to be transported to the mainland. Single-use plastic has been banned since May 2018, but can still be found in many places, from packaging to beverage bottles to rubbish bags. Disposing of bulky waste correctly is expensive, so it's not uncommon for it to be dumped off the tourist trail in the back of town next to the road. I have a whole collection of photos of toilet bowls in the cactus and balsam tree thickets. The school in Floreana has converted a number of discarded toilet bowls into flower pots, quite decorative and possibly a trendsetter - at least it would be desirable.
Creative Recycling in Floreana ©Veronica Huebl
In our everyday life on the island, we got to know numerous afternoon and weekend initiatives that strive to make the children and young people growing up in Galápagos aware of their so special environment and the urgent need to protect it. For example, we helped a group dedicated to the protection of the green sea turtle to mark and cordon off nesting sites, snooped on a photography club that accompanies the national park rangers in their work, collected plastic on the beach, and admired the sculptures and other small works of art that some finds are made into, and shark ambassadors explained to us how they are involved in various shark projects by the Charles Darwin Research Station.
The Thomas de Berlanga School
The Unidad Educativa Tomás de Berlanga also makes a major contribution to raising awareness. Founded in the 1990s as a private initiative with the aim of educating environmentally aware future bearers of responsibility for Galapagos, it offers lessons in 14 classes from kindergarten to the final examination. The lessons are project-based, the projects are geared to the everyday challenges of the archipelago wherever possible and occasionally take place in cooperation with the National Park and the Charles Darwin Research Station. At the end of each project, there is a product that is presented to an audience, either within the school or to a wider public on the Malecón in front of the town hall, which is closed to cars on Friday evenings. Twice a year, the "Tomás" organizes a training week for the entire teaching staff of the islands. When Corona caused a shortage of tourists and thus of income and students whose parents could no longer afford the school fees, the end was imminent. But thanks to international donations, including from the Association of Friends of the Galapagos Islands, the operation of this important institution could be maintained.
The balance in the coexistence of man and nature is fragile, which can probably be observed nowhere else in the world as impressively as in Galápagos. Thanks to international cooperation from the highest political level to the smallest private initiatives, the ecosystem of the islands seems to be preserved at the moment. We dream of going back in a few years to see how life continues to evolve for the people and the animals there.