GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS, ECUADOR. In January 2014, a group of students from Birmingham-Southern College (BSC) in Birmingham, Alabama in the southeastern United States, traveled to the Galápagos Islands, where they spent 10 days studying the flora, fauna and geography of the unique biome as well as conservation measures to preserve the Galápagos Islands environment. Abby Morrison, a recent BSC graduate who received a B.S. in biology and also minored in urban environmental studies, called the trip a “biology pilgrimage” and discusses the impact it had on her interest in environmental conservation.
ROOSTERGNN: Give me some background on the trip.
Abby Morrison: I went to Birmingham-Southern College, and January term we have a month of general interest classes. One of these classes was Explorations to the Galápagos Islands: Wildlife, Ecology and Conservation. In that class, we spent two-thirds of the month of January learning about the Galápagos. We learned a little bit about its people and culture, but mostly we focused on the flora and fauna and the general geography of the Galápagos, and then for seven days we were on an Ecoventura cruise sailing around the islands. We made it to seven islands, which is a lot better than if you were not using a cruise because otherwise you can only go to three islands because those are the only ones with airports.
How did the trip affect you academically as a biology major and an urban environmental studies minor? Did it change the focus of your studies or scholarly interests?
It [the trip] solidified my interests. I want to go into conservation, and most of the Galápagos are national parks of Ecuador, so it confirmed for me that conservationists are needed in the world in order to preserve some of the species. If conservationists weren’t working in the Galápagos, there’s no telling what would happen to the environment. There’s already a problem with invasive species, and if people weren’t as focused on it as they were, it would be a lot worse.
What is your position on the conflict between ecotourism and preservation of the environment?
I think that a way to fix the conflict would be to actually educate the public before they visit. The class that I took really helped. I learned about the environment so that I knew why preserving it was important. So I think if there were intro classes you had to take prior to going to the Galápagos, or just anywhere really, that would be really beneficial because you would know how to preserve the environment. We learned not to step off the path, and in the Galápagos you are required to have naturalist guides, but in other regions that don’t take such measures, people wander at their leisure. I think it’s really helpful to have both the guides and to have a class beforehand, just so you get a basic knowledge of how to preserve the environment.
What measures are authorities taking to preserve the biome of the Galápagos?
Well, some of the tortoise and land iguana species are endangered, and so they’re taking them off the islands that have invasive species and putting them into breeding programs. At the Charles Darwin Research Station, they have different tortoises of various sizes, and they raise them until they are a certain size, and then they release them back into the environment. People are only allowed on certain islands. You aren’t allowed to pass any waste onto the islands. You have to do that on the boat. You can’t bring any food onto the islands. You actually can’t bring any nuts or fruits into the entire Galápagos. They have dogs that search you at the airport in the Galápagos to make sure you don’t have any contraband. Don’t touch anything. You can receive a prison sentence for trying to take an animal off the islands. I think that’s specifically with marine iguanas.
Did you see any damage caused by tourism or did you learn about such damages? Do you support limiting tourism to the Galápagos?
There are paths, but most of them seem to be old paths because the Galápagos was primarily used by pirates and other shipping groups because they’re halfway in the Pacific Ocean. So, some of them are existing paths from cattle and things. Sometimes we walk on trade routes, but some of them are helpful. Because I know sometimes with the land iguanas, sometimes they walk along the path because that way they don’t have to walk through the underbrush. Helpful and I guess detrimental in a way. There are airports on three islands. One problem they have with ecotourism is that it has brought a lot of people from the mainland over to the Galápagos to try and sell things to the tourists. That’s becoming a major problem because there are no sources of fresh water in the Galápagos that these people can use. They bring house cats and dogs, goats, and those have a major impact because the Galápagos has no natural land predators, so some of the bird species primarily feed on the ground or walk along the ground rather than fly, so cats are very detrimental. Same with dogs. Goats are out-competing the Galápagos tortoises because tortoises move slowly and goats don’t.
What measures would you like to see implemented to either regulate or open up tourism and to protect the environment?
For a lot of the uninhabited islands, everything seems to be okay because no one really goes there. They do have a problem with invasive goats. I know the Ecuadorian government has been talking about not allowing any more residents to move in, which would help decrease the economic costs and certainly the environmental costs on the islands. There are actually people that brought the tortoises in and had parks that tourists pay to like go see the tortoises in, which is kind of a gray area. And I think another thing they should probably do is not allow people to have pets, as horrible as that sounds, but it’s a national park, so if the pets are killing the native species, they should probably not be there, or at least take the stray animals off the island and bring them to the mainland.
What responsibility do today’s tourists have to preserve the environment, especially such unique biomes as the Galápagos, for future generations?
I think it’s really important that people preserve especially the endangered environments because if we don’t preserve them, we never know what’s going to happen. Environmental degradation is a cascade effect. You destroy one thing, it could all easily come toppling over, and if you think one thing isn’t important, and you end up losing it, there’s really no way to get it back. And then once it’s gone, you never know what the consequences are going to be. And then, if you get to see something so beautiful, why wouldn’t you want future generations to be able to see it? That’s also important. And I’d rather see green than parking lots, personally. I think we’ve got plenty of stores around. I’d rather have trees.
Do you have a favorite memory of the trip or favorite spots you visited?
I’m not a particularly strong swimmer, but I really did like snorkeling. That was really fun because we got to swim with sea turtles, which is something we only get to do now that they’ve outlawed swimming while holding onto the turtles because before that, the Pacific Green turtles would swim away from people, and now they’ll swim right next to you because you aren’t supposed to touch them. We had a Galápagos sea lion swimming with us, a couple Galápagos fur seals. There were even a couple of sharks. All of the fish species were there, and it was really cool to see because walking around and seeing species is one thing, but being in another species’ environment that’s totally foreign to you is just really cool, just to see how diverse the marine environments were when we have no idea looking from the top. It just looks like empty water, but then once you go in you can see all kinds of species that are native to those environments that you would have no idea are there.
What environment would you like to visit and study next? Why?
If I got to go anywhere in the world to study environmental conservation, I’d want to go to the African Savanna. Poaching has become a major issue in that part of the world, and they think that elephants could — if poaching continues the way it has been going — become extinct, which is kind of terrifying when you think about it.
Abby plans to continue take conservation classes at Tennessee Technological University for a year to prepare for graduate school, where she hopes to study environmental conservation or a related field. After graduate school, Abby says she would enjoy working in the Galápagos or the African Savanna or at a national park in the United States. In addition to the conflict between tourism and protection of unique biomes, Abby expresses concern about the struggle between economic growth and environmental conservation. She comments that many developing nations cannot afford to take measures to preserve the environment, and that developed nations that pressure them to do so are only able to prioritize environmental conservation after achieving economic development.
More information on conservation efforts in the Galápagos Islands may be found online at www.Galápagos.org.Ecological Conservation in the Galápagos