Galapagos Islands Essay

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The Galapagos Islands (or Archipielago de Colon) are located in the Pacific Ocean on the equator 600 miles (960 kilometers) west of South America. The archipelago is made up of 19 main islands with a total land area of 3,050 square miles (7,900 square kilometers), or slightly less than half the size of Hawaii. Geologically, the islands are a chain of volcanoes that have pushed up from the seafloor as the earth’s crust moves over a stationary hotspot in the mantle. The Galapagos are one of the world’s most volcanically active regions, and large basaltic lava flows can be seen. The climate is uncharacteristically dry for the tropics, with an average annual precipitation of 19 inches (500 millimeters).

The Galapagos Islands were discovered by the Spanish in 1535. (Galapago means saddle in Spanish, as the shells of the tortoises found on the islands resemble a type of saddle.) The islands were annexed by the country of Ecuador in 1832 and today are a province of that country. In the 1800s, the first permanent settlers arrived when the islands were used for whaling. During the World War II, the United States had an air base on Baltra Island. At various times, the islands were also used as a penal colony. Today, there are settlements on four of the islands, and the territory has a total population of 20,000 people. The largest town, with 8,000 people, is Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. In addition, 70,000 tourists visit the Galapagos each year.

The Galapagos is the most pristine and leastaltered island chain left on earth. The archipelago retains 95 percent of its original species, many of which are endemic, or found nowhere else on the planet. They are home to the famous giant Galapagos tortoise, marine iguanas, finches, and flightless cormorants, as well as sea turtles, albatrosses, and boobies. The islands may be best known as the place where English naturalist Charles Darwin, sailing aboard the HMS Beagle, visited in 1835. Darwin’s observations of the varied, unique, and harsh environments of the islands, and of how plants and animals rapidly adapted to them, contributed to his theory of evolution by natural selection.

In 1959, the Ecuadorian government created the Galapagos National Park, which encompasses 97 percent of the land area. In the same year, the Charles Darwin Foundation was established under the auspices of the United Nations. The foundation operates a research station, promotes environmental education, and works closely with the government on conservation. In 1978, UNESCO named the Galapagos a World Heritage site, and the islands were recognized as a biosphere reserve in 1984. In 1998, the Galapagos Marine Reserve was created, which encompasses 50,500 square miles (133,000 square kilometers) around the islands.

The three biggest threats to the Galapagos are introduced species, growth in the human population, and fishing. People have brought to the Galapagos, deliberately or accidentally, a range of nonnative species. Goats, feral pigs, cats, and rats are particularly damaging, as they denude the islands of vegetation and kill native wildlife. Hundreds of introduced plants also threaten the fragile ecosystem. A tortoise breeding program, eradication of introduced species, and habitat restoration are among the many ongoing conservation efforts. As the Galapagos gained a reputation as a tourist paradise, the human population grew from around 1,000 in 1960 to 20,000 today. Strict rules govern tourist activities. However, historically, the focus of the local population has been on resource extraction, with little concern for sustainability. The islands are home to 1,000 fishermen, and while commercial fishing is banned, small-scale fishing for reef fish, lobster, and sea cucumbers puts pressure on shoreline environments. Larger boats from the mainland frequently harvest shark fins illegally.

The Galapagos Islands are at a crossroads. The threats are grave and ecological degradation continues. Recent actions such as a quarantine inspection system and controlling immigration to the islands are positive. Ecoregion-based conservation planning is bringing together the government, private stakeholder groups, and international conservation organizations in search of a model for integrated long-term sustainable management. With decisive policies and effective conservation efforts, one of the world’s magnificent natural areas can be saved.


  1. Bensted-Smith, A Bio-Diversity Vision for the Galapagos Islands (Charles Darwin Foundation and World Wildlife Fund, 1999);
  2. Charles Darwin Foundation,;
  3. Michael Jackson, Galapagos: A Natural History (University of Calgary Press, 1993).

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