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Galapagos: Preserving Darwin’s Legacy

Part lavishly illustrated coffee table book, part reference book for all ages, the second edition of Tui De Roy’s Galapagos: Preserving Darwin’s Legacy is a must-read-and-keep volume for anyone who has been, or plans to go, to one of the world’s magic places to experience wildlife. If you haven’t been, or will never be able to go, this book is as close as you will get to appreciating and understanding what the Galapagos fuss is all about.

First published in 2009, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Charles Darwin Foundation on the Pacific islands, the July 2016 edition of the book includes significant updates to the science and conservation status of many iconic species, from the famous tortoises and iguanas to the astonishing bird life, including the world’s only penguins that live on the Equator.

We emailed some questions to Tui De Roy just as she was leaving for the Galapagos this past summer. She sent these replies:

How is you book updated since the last edition? What has changed about our knowledge of the Galapagos in the intervening period?

Galapagos: Preserving Darwin's Legacy is published by Bloomsbury Natural History. Click the cover image for additional information.
Galapagos: Preserving Darwin’s Legacy is published by Bloomsbury Natural History. Click the cover image for additional information.

Despite funding shortages, Galapagos research keeps advancing in leaps and bounds (both long-term studies and new projects) so I made sure all new findings uncovered in the last seven years have been included.  To this end, 10 of the original authors were asked to update their chapters, six of which have been almost completely re-written, as there was so much new info to incorporate.

The double-barrelled introduction was also replaced completely by new authors, reflecting both the NGO work (Charles Darwin Foundation) and the new vision of the Ecuadorian government towards protecting Galapagos into the future.  Even ancillary sections, such as contact addresses, acknowledgements and index were all updated.  And besides all this, we’ve chosen a new style of cover and introductory photos to give the book a crisper, more modern feel.

National Geographic published an article in the April 1999 issue of the magazine about the islands — Galapagos: Paradise in Peril (by Peter Benchley). It mentions that the detritus of human development threatens many of the islands’ 1,900 endemic species. But you have a different perspective, I think. How would you assess the overall status of the Galapagos from the perspective of the environment, especially the endemic species? What might Benchley say if he could see the Galapagos now, nearly two decades later?

It should be understood that the Galapagos Islands have been in peril since the first humans set foot ashore in 1535, and as far as I can tell, they will always remain in peril. That’s because of two things:  First, it’s the extreme biological isolation, caused by the barrier of the surrounding ocean, that made the Galapagos biota so unique; second, that barrier has been breached by the arrival of humans opening a potential floodgate of invasive species, first with a few ships and today with multiple airline flights.  Even so, the extraordinary thing is that we still have over 95+% of the original biodiversity present — in other words, very few species have been lost to date.

Marine iguanas. Photograph courtesy of Tui De Roy.
Marine iguanas. Photograph courtesy of Tui De Roy.

Remember that the islands remained uninhabited until two centuries ago, so they did not suffer the first wave of extinction that Polynesian settlers wrought upon other Pacific Islands in pre-Colombian times, from New Zealand to Easter Island. As a result, active conservation efforts were launched before it was too late for the majority of species in Galapagos.  Of course there’s a plethora of threats as human activity has proven notoriously difficult to reign in (from oceanic fishing poachers to farmers and pet owners), but there are also great advances. For example, eight of the 15 main islands that were once devastated by feral mammals (goats, pigs, rats) have been rid of these pests and their ecosystems are recovering apace. So in conclusion, I think the difference between Benchley’s and my view can be compared to the glass half full or half empty: There’s so much to be lost (in peril), or so much to be saved (amazingly well preserved).  I don’t know of any other oceanic archipelago in the world (outside of polar regions) as well preserved as this one.

Since you first published your book, there have been some important scientific advances in the Galapagos. What are some of the most significant discoveries, in your perspective? How have we changed our overall understanding of the unique ecology there, and how is that knowledge being applied to improved stewardship?

It’s amazing what keeps emerging. For example, satellite tracking of large sharks is beginning to cast light on their extraordinary ability to navigate between distant sets of islands, results which are empowering decision-makers in different countries to get together to work on international safe corridors in the region for the protection of mega species like hammerhead and whale sharks. When the first edition went to press, the Pink iguana had only just been discovered and named but nothing was known about it; now we have complete information on its range and population, proving that it is not only new but also critically endangered, prompting new plans for its rescue. And the two rewritten chapters on giant tortoises reveal an altogether new species, plus mega-plans for the long-term restoration of the whole tribe. Other Galapagos studies are exploring virgin ground, like deep-sea exploration of seamounts, ancient sunken islands throbbing with undersea life… but this and many other new topics will have to await new chapters in Volumes II and III of the book, a dream I’d love to realise someday.

Alcedo giant tortoise. Photograph courtesy of Tui De Roy.
Alcedo giant tortoise. Photograph courtesy of Tui De Roy.

The Galapagos is seemingly on everyone’s bucket list, in part because of the beautiful images made by photographers like you. I am constantly reading about new ships and operators, no doubt in response to the high demand. In your view, how is the tourism industry being managed with respect to also managing the needs of protecting the natural heritage of the park?

My view is that well-managed tourism and conservation should and can go hand-in-hand (after all tourism is the only non-extractive use of natural resources).  But the key is in the words ‘well-managed.’  What must be appreciated is that it’s not the footprints or candy-wrappers left by tourists that threaten the ecosystem; it’s the crates of vegetables flown in to feed those tourists, potentially containing aggressive insects or pathogens. From this perspective, ship-borne tourism (where visitors board the vessel directly from the airport and live on board throughout their stay, making only controlled visits ashore under the supervision of a licensed guide) is FAR more manageable than land-based operations (which are on the increase). Tour boats can, AND DO, operate under extremely strict supervision, ranging from what fuel they are allowed to burn to how they must treat their waste. As a result, one visitor booking into a poorly managed hotel can have a far more negative impact than 100 visitors on a top-quality ship. The fact that so many hotels and day-tour operations exist in Galapagos is due mainly to demographic-cum-socio-political reasons, which in itself is hard to manage. So my feeling is that it’s not the numbers, but the style of tourism that matters most, and in that regard Galapagos is still largely on the right track.

Hammerhead shark. Photograph courtesy of Tui De Roy.
Hammerhead shark. Photograph courtesy of Tui De Roy.

How have attitudes and activities of the local people changed, the people who were born and who live on the islands, in your experience? Is there a response to the various outreach and educational programs, and are people being better stewards of their islands?

A huge change in attitude in the local population has taken place in the last 20-30 years, so there’s no doubt that outreach and education is having a strong positive impact.  Many sons and daughters of farmers and fishermen who not so long ago didn’t mind poaching where it suited them are now top managers in the National Park administration dedicated to preserving the islands’ biodiversity.  But the improved living conditions that the tourism industry has brought to the islands has caused a massive population increase, first by immigration during the 1980s and 90s, but also with most children returning to partake in the new economic opportunities after completing their studies abroad.

This growth has proven unsustainable and incompatible with the stability that conservation measures require, so there are now strict rules and a maximum stay for anyone coming to the islands who wasn’t a resident prior to 1998.  In fact, as far as I know, Ecuador is the only country in the world that changed its constitution for the sake of conservation, limiting the freedom of movement of its citizens without its own borders to avoid too many people settling in Galapagos — that’s pretty impressive!

With all your experience and knowledge of the Galapagos, what still surprises and enchants you the most about the place? What is your biggest concern about the future of the Galapagos?

What truly enchants me is that every single time I go out into the wilds, away from the town where people have to live, I invariably experience something I’ve never seen before.  It can be swimming amid a feeding frenzy of penguins, or a baby hawk being fed a baby sea turtle, sea lion pups playing with a hapless batfish, or simply a squadron of feeding golden rays furrowing the sandy seafloor in parallel lines — these are real examples that come to mind just in the last year. It’s absolutely mind-boggling how dynamic and constantly changing a healthy wild ecosystem like this one can be. In three more years I will have been photographing here professionally for 50 years (the subject of my next book), yet everyday I still get photos I never got before.

Tell us a bit about some of your favorite Galapagos species and the experiences you have had studying and photographing them? What if these are featured in your book?

That is a difficult question to answer.  It’s like asking a mother which is her favourite child!  My favourite can be watching the lava lizards interact at my back door one moment, and the mockingbird family by my front door the next; whatever I’m watching at any given time seems to be my favourite.

 "New species" Santa Cruz tortoise. Photograph courtesy of Tui De Roy.
“New species” Santa Cruz tortoise. Photograph courtesy of Tui De Roy.

I think my favorite species on the islands are the tortoises. How are they doing? Are we ever going to be able to back-breed the sub-species represented by Lonesome George?

The giant tortoises, as everyone knows, have suffered more human depredations (first collected for their delicious meat, and later preyed upon by domestic mammals gone wild), but they have one thing in their favour: longevity.  Thanks to their incredible ability to survive for a century or maybe two, many of them were able to outlast the problem until help arrived. Take the ones on Pinzon Island, where about 125 adults survived but were unable to reproduce for over a century because of introduced black rats eating all the hatchlings.

At first all that could be done was to bring the eggs into captivity and raise the babies until they were big enough to survive rat attacks.  But recent advances have made it possible to to eradicate all the rats on the island, so at last the tortoises can breed there naturally again — both the captive-raised ones and the old survivors. Española Island is an even greater success story, largely unsung: thousands of goats were eliminated while just 15 surviving tortoises were bred in captivity, and now the island is pristine again and the tortoise population is recovering with no further human help needed.

As for the recently rediscovered hybrid descendants of Pinta (Lonesome George relatives) and Floreana tortoises, this exciting new chapter is well covered in the book.  As we speak, several dozen tortoises are being tested for their respective ancestry.  Even superficially these tortoises look and behave differently from their contemporaries, and once their genetic fingerprinting is completed, I believe will form a robust new beginning to repopulating their ancestral islands. OK, they will never be genetically “pure” but ecologically they should fit right back in where their kind has been absent for so long — exciting times indeed.

In spite of all the good work being done to conserve the Galapagos, and minimize the impact of the travel industry, it seems as if there are still two enormous challenges facing the Galapagos: climate change and invasive species. What is your assessment of how resilient the islands are to those threats?

I agree these are the two most insidious threats, whose outcomes are very difficult to predict.  I have my bad days when I feel that both these threats are like advancing lava flow: slow but unstoppable. But then I have my good days, when I am filled with wonder at the resilience and adaptability of a truly healthy ecosystem, which fills me with hope that the incredible Galapagos biodiversity as a whole may have more tricks up its sleeve than we give it credit for. Our part is to ensure that it remains in top health to give it the best chances possible. In a way, I’m thankful that our predictions tend to fall way short of reality (take the latest so-called El Niño event forecasting massive rains for most of the last year, which in actual fact has turned out to be one of the driest in recent history!). The absence of certainty gives us a solid chance to HOPE for the best.

Galapagos sea lions. Photograph courtesy of Tui De Roy.
Galapagos sea lions. Photograph courtesy of Tui De Roy.

Your book is obviously useful to anyone planning to visit/has visited the Galapagos. It is a compendium of really good information and wonderful photos. How useful is it to researchers?

This is perhaps not a question that I should be answering myself, since I’m obviously biased, but I do notice that most researchers I know have a copy on their shelves!  When I set out to produce this book I had already read dozens of research papers and knew that there were many more covering an incredible range of extraordinary discoveries.  But the point was that nowhere could you find all of this information easily and quickly.  So I asked each author to simply write up a concise essay detailing only the true “highlights” of their work within a limited number of words that would fit on 240 pages, together with ample illustrations. I also felt very strongly that the information needed to be accessible and interesting to the lay public, so I asked them to write it in the first person as well, so that it would truly be “their story”, not just a dry treatise. This turned out to be a hard ask for many scientists trained to write in a very different style, so I ended up spending many months of editing and communicating back and forth until we had it just right. The most gratifying part for me was how many of them commented in the end how wonderfully stimulating the process had been, stretching them to address a broader audience than they were used to.

Tui De Roy is an award-winning wildlife photographer, naturalist, and author of many books on wildlife themes around the world. She is also an ardent conservationist who has combined her life’s three passions—wildness, photography, and conservation—into a successful career as a world communicator striving to sensitize her audiences to take better care of our natural planet. With this conviction at heart, she was a Founding Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP).

Tui is Belgian by birth, but grew up in Galápagos, where her parents took her to lead a pioneering lifestyle when she was two years old. She never attended school, being home taught, and is fluent in four languages: English, French, Spanish, and German. After more than 35 years in Galápagos, Tui relocated to the South Island of New Zealand 20 years ago. She runs The Roving Tortoise Nature Photography together with business partners Mark Jones and Julie Cornthwaite, working freelance under the logo ‘Images of Wildlife and Wilderness from Our Planet’s Most Pristine, Uninhabited Regions’.

Published in more than 40 countries, Tui’s first articles appeared in major U.S. nature magazines when she was 19, followed a few years later by her first book. Many subsequent volumes cover not only Galápagos, but other natural wonders of the world, notably Antarctica, the Andes Mountains, and New Zealand.

Her most recent books include Albatross: Their World, Their Ways, an in-depth celebration of the world’s most endangered multi-species bird family, a sister volume Penguins: Their World, Their Ways, and Galápagos: Preserving Darwin’s Legacy, which represents a compilation of 50 years of science and conservation work.

David Maxwell Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs. He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 10,000 conversations have been posted, eliciting more than 50,000 moderated comments from readers.

Braun was an expert lecturer on a ten-day exploration of the Galapagos (2012), on board the National Geographic Endeavour.
(See all his Lindblad-National Geographic Galapagos Expedition posts here.)