Wednesday, March 5, 2008


From 1998-2004, I spent my summers guiding hiking trips in the Columbia Mountains of Canada. Those mountains are incredible and it is there where I've had some of the most memorable times of my life. Most memorable of all were the people I met and their inspirational stories.

In 2001, I had a guest whose determination and eternal optimism left an impression on me that I'll never forget. The following is from my journal entry from July of that year.

“We were hiking on a ridge in Canada’s Columbia Mountains called Vertigo. It is a very special place. It is not one of our regular hikes. In fact, only a handful of people in the world had ever been there before. To even consider hiking Vertigo, an absolutely perfect day is in order. It is an exposed, relatively narrow ridge with an intimidating drop on either side.

On that day we were privileged. There were perfect blue skies and only a modest wind. I had been to Vertigo once before (a year earlier) and was quickly reminded why this place was so special: the view is superb - an endless sea of snowcapped peaks.

I was leading my group along the ridge towards the main peak. The peak is somewhat narrow and steep. It is not dangerous but for someone who has little experience in the mountains this hike can really test their courage. When I looked up I noticed another small group making their way down the peak. In that group was a man who I had taken a special interest in during the week. His name was Fred and he was tall, thin, muscular, and probably in his late 40’s or early 50’s (I never asked). He was a former athlete going through the initial stages of multiple sclerosis. As he hiked alongside his wife, I could see his diagnostic limp. He was walking towards me.

During the week, I never gave him special attention or treated him differently from any of my other guests. However, I thought about him a lot. I wondered what went through his mind the weeks, days, and nights before our hiking trip. Was he scared, excited, nervous, afraid of failing, and/or ready for his personal challenge? I did know one thing for certain – I could see that he was coming to terms with the fact that he was losing control of his body. One of his legs was not working very well. At times, I would watch him literally grab his pant leg and pick his leg up to make it go over an obstacle. At times, he stumbled and lost his balance, but he never (not even once) became frustrated. In fact, few people were enjoying themselves more! How could someone who was faced with such a difficult challenge be so enthusiastic? I did not realize it at the time, but he already gave me the answer.

As we walked past each other I smiled at him and said proudly, “Fred you went up there?” He came over to me, grabbed my arm until I stopped walking, and made sure that he had my attention. I could see his eyes well-up. He pointed back to that peak he just ascended and said, “that is the closest I’m ever going to get to Mt. Everest. Those are my Hillary Steps.” He was overcome with emotion.

He showed me that no matter how difficult a challenge one faces (whether it is a small hill on the top of a mountain or facing something as serious as multiple sclerosis) any experience (good or bad) is what you make of it because we cannot control certain things that happen to us.

I have heard similar clichés in the past, but it was this mans reality and now it was my personal experience – it was truly inspirational. He embraced all the positive aspects from his experience when it could have been so easy to become frustrated or to feel sorry for himself.

The rare opportunity to hike Vertigo and the grand scale of all those surrounding mountains were eclipsed by one man’s courage, determination, and sense of adventure. He showed me something that was greater than the mountains, the scenery, and all of nature – his human spirit! He took that beautiful scene and made it better; by giving it emotion, he brought it to life.

He is not the only one. Every time I lead a group into the mountains there are certain individuals who achieve a personal goal and/or overcome a challenge. I frequently see spirits rekindled and a new enthusiasm for life. I used to think that the mountains created this spirit, but now I know that they serve only as a catalyst – the human spirit has been there all along.”

Wednesday, January 9, 2008


If the natural world excites you then take a moment to pull out a map. Find East Africa; find Tanzania; find Serengeti National Park. Now point to the central plains and be impressed that right there at this very moment approximately 1½ million wildebeest accompanied by 250,000 zebra are passing through the area. Our planet’s greatest animal migration is on.

A couple weeks ago, in the Seronera Valley, we saw an endless line of determined wildebeest trotting south. Wildebeest make a deep nasally “hhhuuummm” call. Sort of like an oversized bullfrog. Amplify that 1,000 times over, throw in the incessant thumping of hooves on hardpan, and imagine a cloud of dust flying in all directions. Only then can you begin to appreciate this incredible event.
Observing the migration makes two things obvious: 1) wildebeest are by far the most numerous large animal in the Serengeti; and 2) an individual wildebeest is unspectacular. Looking at a wildebeest begs the question, “how can something so ungainly be so abundant?” After all, wildebeest do not have the speed of gazelle, the size or intelligence of elephants, the aggressiveness of Cape buffalo, the athleticism of impala, or the power of zebra. So, why are they so successful?

The answer, in part, has to do with their reproductive behavior. Right now, nearly every adult female is pregnant. Most will give birth during a three-week window in February when an average of 8,000 calves will be born everyday. Sure, marauding lions, hyenas, cheetahs, hunting dogs, and leopards take a few thousand but that leaves many more thousands unharmed. They simply overwhelm the predator population! Throw in the fact that newborn calves stand within four minutes and can run with the herd within a day and we can begin to understand why wildebeest are so successful.

A calf’s biggest danger is being separated from its mother as the heaving masses move towards greener grass. Because no calf will receive milk from another mother, separation spells certain doom. Calves, for their part, do not like to be alone. Their instinct to follow something is so strong that one lonely calf ran along side our safari vehicle as we drove by. On a couple of occasions I’ve seen lions feeding on a female wildebeest lying next to her dead calf. Presumably, the mother was ambushed, and with no other options, the calf hung around until it met the same fate.

Hundreds of thousands of wildebeest consume about 4000 tons of grass each day so they are in constant motion – always searching for new grass. This creates problems when the rains quite in June. The soils dry, the grasses brown, and the herds need to move north into Kenya’s Masai Mara. Along the way, they are forced to cross the Grumeti River where 16-foot crocs patiently wait for their annual feeding.

However, those are troubled times. It is raining now and there are endless fields of green nutritious grass. Adults and juveniles alike are sometimes seen “dancing.” They spin in circles, jump foolishly into the air, and kick their legs up high in what appears to be a “celebration dance.” It is this behavior that earned them the nickname “clowns of the Serengeti.”

This year, I was able to observe a part of the world’s most incredible animal migration. Observing this has shown me that wildebeest overcome horrific challenges and enjoy many successes. Because of this, I have developed a deep appreciation for them. But more profoundly, I take comfort in knowing that their 2,000-mile trek takes them across well-preserved and healthy ecosystems. I take comfort in knowing that this year wildebeest are doing what they have done for millions of years and today, like then, their fate is largely their own. Their annual “dance” ought to be celebrated by all who appreciate nature.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Elephants and humans have a rich and complex relationship. Elephants, of course, need no introduction. Everyone knows that they are the largest land animals on the planet. As such, they command our attention and respect. But really, even if elephants were the size of house cats, their caring nature, strong social bonds, long life span, and excellent memory would still intrigue people. When people learn that baby elephants spend almost all of their first nine years within touching distance of their mother they appreciate elephants all the more!

And, every human can relate to elephants when we watch them grieve over the loss of a herd member. A few weeks ago, I saw a fallen elephant lying under the shade of an acacia tree. She was either sick or injured and not able to stand up. All the other members of her herd were circled around her. They were touching her, providing her with added shade, and trying in vain to lift her to her feet. It was affecting. There was a baby elephant who was especially affectionate towards the fallen individual. Perhaps it was the baby’s mother, but more likely it was the first time this youngster witnessed death coming to one of its own.

Humans can relate when we see this compassion and it helps to strengthen our bond with elephants. Personally, I have a deep sense of privilege that I have been able to see so many free roaming wild elephants. I have spent enough time in the presence of elephants to know how intelligent they are and that, for the most part, they are gentle giants. These are some of the reasons why most humans view elephants with adoring admiration and empathy.

However, as with most things, our relationship with elephants is strained. Some people, mainly those who live and farm side-by-side with elephants, view them as destructive and dangerous. A few weeks ago, in the Bunda region of Tanzania, three elephants were “put down” by conservation officials after they ravaged the village’s agricultural fields. This is a common occurrence throughout elephant country. There are frequent calls among many local villagers to “cull” the herds. Unfortunately, this strain in our relationship has no easy solution.

Trophy hunters further strain the human/elephant relationship. I’ve tried; I mean I’ve honestly tried to understand what possible satisfaction there could be in killing a gentle giant with a high-powered rifle from a safe distance. I’ve participated in chat room discussions, online message boards, and have conversed face-to-face with several trophy hunters. I always hope to gain some insight into why anyone would pay thousands of dollars to murder an unsuspecting elephant in order to gain a head-mount and a savage story. Whom does this impress?

Ultimately, I am yet to discover any higher level of thinking or rationale beyond some primitive and unrefined human instinct to kill. Ask any trophy hunter why they hunt and you will get the standard laundry list of justifications:
1) “…for the meat.”
2) “…animal populations need to be controlled.”
3) “…hunting is sustainable.” This can be true. The so-called “offtake” (number of individuals killed) approaches 5% annually of a “properly” hunted population – certainly enough to maintain healthy populations under most circumstances.
4) “…hunting is an important conservation tool.” Some game reserves are huge and hunters pay astronomical fees to take only a few animals. In fact, more land area in Africa is managed as game reserves than as national parks. Moreover, the revenue generated through hunting concessions can be used for conservation efforts. The Selous Game Reserve (in southern Tanzania), for example, receives over 80% of its revenue from hunting concessions and Selous is replete with healthy wildlife populations. Furthermore, and much to the chagrin of the hunting community, the cost of trophy hunting is about to increase substantially. A hunting license in Tanzania will be $50,000 next year (up from $10,000) and the cost to kill an elephant just tripled (from $5,000 this year to $15,000 next year). Experts predict that this increase will not discourage professional game hunters but will significantly increase game hunting’s contribution to Tanzania’s national economy.
5) “…hunting has a smaller environmental footprint than tourism.” It is true that most hunters are quite tolerant of rustic services and accommodations. They require less infrastructure, use less water, and insist on fewer first-class meals than the average tourist. Additionally, tourists can overwhelm an area in large numbers whereas hunters demand more privacy and space.

Most of this justification is true (assuming hunters are ethical and play by the rules). It is true that a small number of trophy hunters kill a small number of animals and generate large amounts of money with minimal environmental impact. Without hunting, many game reserves would likely be converted to marginal farmlands and more ecosystems and wildlife would be lost in the process.

So, it is disconcerting to concede that I am partly thankful that there are human beings willing to spend thousands of dollars to “bag” innocent and beautiful creatures such as elephants.

Hunter’s, on the other hand, should not feel too good about themselves. Everyone knows trophy hunters do not travel to Tanzania to provide the locals with “bushmeat.” And, no hunter takes aim at an elephant because they may have less environmental impact than tourists on photographic safaris. An important reason why individual elephants suffer at the hands of trophy hunters is because killing them gives trophy hunters a "rush." This answer reveals something quite disturbing about the true character of trophy hunters and is conveniently left off their list of justifications. Simply put, killing elephants because it is a "rush" is not defensible in the court of public opinion.

Taken as a whole, trophy-hunting elephants as a conservation tool leaves us little to feel good about and further strains the human relationship with elephants.

Undoubtedly, the most barbaric side of the human/elephant relationship involves elephant tusks and human greed. Elephants were slaughtered, wholesale, throughout the 1970’s and 80’s as the price of ivory skyrocketed. In only five years (from 1980-1985) the African elephant population dropped in half from about 1.3 million elephants to 700,000. Because elephants are so long-lived and have excellent memories, many elephants alive today must have witnessed, and therefore, are likely to remember the day a family member was gunned-down and de-tusked.

Some herds were wiped out completely and indiscriminately. Because elephants are so strongly dependent on the matriarch (their most senior female and leader), simply shooting her causes all the other elephants to gather around her body in confusion and absolute panic. Instead of running, they remain by her side until every last one of them is shot down. This unholy scene has been documented repeatedly throughout the dark days of the ivory trade. If our final judgment, as a human race, includes our treatment of these sentient beings for our material (but otherwise worthless) desire for their ivory, then there will be hell to pay (literally).

Someday, when the human race is more thoughtful and compassionate, people will look back on the days of trophy hunting and the ivory trade with much shame and embarrassment. Pictures of men with rifles standing over fallen giants and piles of tusks will be another black stain on an already checkered existence.

I sometimes entertain the possibility that animals, especially elephants, are able to pass judgment on us. On a number of occasions I’ve been within a few feet of wild elephants. One of the most profound experiences I have had in nature is to look into the eye of a 10,000-pound elephant and have it look directly back at me.

I believe that encased within that huge skull is a brain capable of judgment. If so, then it may be instructive (even if highly unscientific) to consider for a moment what elephants may think of us and consider, from their perspective, whether we are good global citizens. This makes me think of the elephants of Tarangire.

Tarangire is a national park in northern Tanzania. It is just over 1,000 square miles in area and contains approximately 3,000 elephants! This gives Tarangire one of the highest densities of elephants of any place in the world. However, these elephants can only be seen in the park during the prolonged dry season when they are pulled in from all over the region to drink and bath in the Tarangire River.

Here, the elephants see many people. Mainly, they are tourists in Land Cruisers on photographic safaris. Typically, the elephants appear too busy to be overly concerned with tourists. They generally seem unimpressed by us and tend to flat-out ignore us as they cross park roads and pass right in front of our vehicles.

But, occasionally a few individuals will come over to have a closer look. They might fan their ears, shake their heads at us, bluff charge, or raise their trunk and release one of their organ-shaking bugles.

Tarangire National Park is a sanctuary for the elephants and they seem to realize this. They seem to know that people in Land Cruisers do not harm them while they are inside the park. As a result, they treat us with indifference.

This relationship changes during the rainy season, however. During these months, the elephants must leave Tarangire for more nutritious vegetation outside of the protection of the park. As they migrate, the elephants are forced to pass through game reserves, local villages, and agricultural communities. It is here that they come into conflict with people. Suddenly, humans are not so passive or innocent. Tourists with cameras quickly become trophy hunters, poachers, and local villagers with rifles. Rare it must be, for an elephant who has not lost a herd member to a bullet.

So, if Tarangire’s elephants can pass judgment on us, then I wonder what their conclusion might be. Part of the year, they might describe us as harmless spectators, innocent, or even friendly. Another part of the year they might describe us as evil, violent, and murderous. Perhaps their overall judgment would include words like bipolar, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous.

From an elephant’s perspective, a concluding statement about the human race could easily read: “an untrusting, adolescent race with the potential to mature into something good.”

Friday, October 5, 2007

IN MEMORIAM: MACHU PICCHU (circa 1430 - 2007)

On July 7, 2007, Machu Picchu officially became one of the “New 7 Wonders of the World.” Machu Picchu is deserving of the title. It truly is an archeological wonder amidst natural beauty. If you are one of the fortunate few who have experienced Machu Picchu, then proudly point to your feet and tell all your friends how those feet, attached to your legs, once led you through those mystical Inca ruins.

If you have always dreamed of experiencing Machu Picchu but have not yet had the opportunity, then I’m sorry to inform you that you may be too late. On July 7, 2007, more than 100 million voters (with good intentions) accidentally killed Machu Picchu when they selected it as one of the "New Wonders of the World." It's true, Machu Picchu is dead. I know this because a few weeks ago I saw – in person – its withering remains.

Physically, Machu Picchu is still there. That incredible sanctuary tucked deep within the high ridges of the beautiful Peruvian Andes is still there. And, the stones that make up that sanctuary are still firmly in place (thankfully).

So, what exactly is dead? The answer: the visitor experience. The visitor experience is dead because the solitude is gone. It was the solitude that made Machu Picchu truly special. Solitude allowed the visitor to contemplate one of the most amazing structures built by one of the most amazing societies the western hemisphere has ever known. The Incas left no written history, so what we think we know is based primarily on speculation. Solitude permits speculation and personalizes the experience. At Machu Picchu, solitude and speculation could grab your soul and open a window to the past.

When I made my first visit to Machu Picchu (eight years ago), solitude was still possible. It was possible to stroll quietly through Inca doorways into Inca built homes and temples. The only sounds came from the flowing Urubamba River and a morning chorus of rainforest birds. I used to place my hand on a stone and wonder what life may have been like for the person who put that stone there. The experience was incredible.

Today, with over 2,000 visitors each day (compared to an average of 25 people per day in the early 1990’s), that solitude is mostly gone and so is the mystique. It is difficult to hear your local guide because right next to you is another local guide who is barking information to their group. After each local guide finishes their commentary it is a struggle to move from one point of interest to the next because the corridors are small, too small for large groups walking in opposite directions. At best this is irritating and detracts from the experience; at worst it is intolerable.

Now that Machu Picchu is a “New Wonder of the World,” concerned citizens and foreign officials predict that this new designation will attract even more visitors. They fear that Machu Picchu might become an “Incan Disneyland.” These prognosticators will not have to wait very long. I’ve experienced Machu Picchu and I’ve experienced Disney. A few weeks ago, I didn’t notice that much of a difference. In both places tourists must purchase tickets, wait in lines, and enter through turnstiles. Both places are crowded and both places have hours of operation. At 6:00pm, dozens of uniformed workers at Machu Picchu begin blowing their whistles – a not so subtle way for them to say, “you’ve overstayed your welcome.”

Machu Picchu has long been popular with hikers and backpackers. Today, however, nobody searching for a genuine hiking experience treks the Inca Trail. It is soiled with human excrement, garbage, and in places, the trail is choked with lines of hikers. Today, this hike is only for the uninformed or those looking for a new feather in their cap.

Recently, I bumped into Ernesto (a long-time friend) and we had lunch together. He has been guiding in Machu Picchu for years. He told me he just returned from a hike to Wayna Picchu (the adjacent mountain overlooking Machu Picchu). He said it was disheartening and claimed that he would never take another client there again. Apparently, a train of 200 people hiking in formation ruined the experience. Throw in a hiker who slipped and broke her hip and the day was a bust.

I sometimes wonder how the builders of Machu Picchu would feel if they could see their sanctuary today: the circus of a steady stream of buses coming and going, lunchtime buffet lines, guards constantly blowing coach’s whistles, and the occasional buzzing of a weed whacker keeping the non-native grass to a proper height. I wonder how Machu Picchu’s builders would react when told that one of their most important shrines – the Intihuantana – was damaged by a falling camera during the filming of an unauthorized beer commercial.

It is worth noting that Machu Picchu is not dead to everyone. Machu Picchu is not dead to the guests of the Sanctuary Lodge – the only lodge situated adjacent to the ruins. In the early morning (before the migrating masses accumulate at the top of the mountain) and in the late afternoon (after the migrating masses leave the ruins in order to spend the night in Aguas Calientes or catch the train back to Cusco), guests of the Sanctuary Lodge can still experience Machu Picchu in its solitude. They can still hear the flowing Urubamba River and rufous-collared sparrows singing from the nearby trees. This privilege, however, does not come cheap. The Lodge’s 31 rooms average around $1,000 per night. Spending this kind of money to achieve "full" access to one of our planet's most cherished World Heritage Sites hardly seems fair. But, such is the world we live in.

The point is, ones impression of Machu Picchu is heavily influenced by whether or not they have access to a room at the Sanctuary Lodge. Unfortunately, only 2% of Machu Picchu's visitors are guests at the Sanctuary Lodge. The other 98% of Machu Picchu's visitors are treated to long lines, the cacophony of large crowds, and a sanctuary without solitude.

Machu Picchu is not dead to Peru’s president Alan Garcia, either. On the contrary Machu Picchu is the giver of life. More tourists bring more money and this is supporting the burgeoning population of Aguas Calientes. Recently, President Garcia belittled any talk of capping tourism. He called those attitudes, “alarmist and catastrophic.” If I was a politician searching for votes (and jobs and income obviously win votes) – rather than a citizen concerned about the experience – I would probably say the same thing.

It is clear that government regulations are not going to protect Machu Picchu or the visitor experience any time soon. Ultimately, breathing life back into Machu Picchu will likely come as a result of self-regulation. In other words, if the visitor experience continues to diminsh then perhaps word will spread and fewer people will make the effort to see Machu Picchu.

In the meantime, if you care about Machu Picchu - one of our planet's most treasured cultural and natural wonders - you may want to take a moment to grieve. It has recently been killed because it has been overly loved.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


Did you ever see that incredible footage where hoards of wildebeest and zebra attempt a heroic crossing through crocodile-laden waters? Most survive; others meet a terrifying end as they are snatched up and pulled under by those gigantic reptiles.

That famous scene plays out every year on the Grumeti River in the western corridor of Tanzania’s Serengeti Plains. I have always watched those documentaries with much fascination (often from a comfortable sofa under the protection of a nice sturdy home). Growing up, I never thought I would actually see, in person, the Grumeti River. So, last week when the opportunity presented itself, I volunteered to spend a night along the river at Grumeti Tented Camp.

I was supposed to spend the night at the luxurious Kirawira Lodge, but the place overbooked so I willingly packed my things and prepared for the ½ hour drive to Grumeti. At my request, the pleasant staff at Kirawira made me a grilled-cheese sandwich. They also provided me with a driver and an armed security guard to personally escort me to Grumeti.

Why the armed guard? …for protection from Serengeti’s wildlife, of course! This is no joke and these guards are not camp ornaments meant to romanticize the visitor experience. Every year tourists are killed by animals in this region. Last year, according to my friend and colleague Rachel Cirincione (who has been guiding safaris in Tanzania for nearly eight years), three tourists were killed. One was an 11-year old boy who was stalked, killed, and partially eaten by a leopard and another was a gentleman on his honeymoon who was crushed to death in front of his wife by an angry elephant. Rachel, herself, barely escaped death a few months ago when a 2,000-pound cape buffalo nearly ran her down along the walkway to Kirawira’s main reception. The bottom-line is, humans cannot carelessly walk around at night without the real possibility of being killed.

It was nighttime by the time my personal entourage drove me to Grumeti. As we drove along the dusty old gravel road we saw a hyena, a genet, a civet, and a humongous hippopotamus (standing on the road in front of our vehicle). My driver told me (in very broken English) to be careful tonight because a few hundred hippos and a resident pride of lions also call Grumeti Tented Camp home. He also informed me that no visitors or tourists were currently at Grumeti – I would have the place to myself! Suddenly, I was beginning to wonder if this was a good idea.

Soon enough we arrived at camp and my armed guard escorted me to my tent. I unzipped it, said goodbye, and went inside. He reminded me that he would return at 5:30am to pick me up. “I hope so,” I thought.

A few minutes later, I heard my escorts drive away. Then, for the next few minutes, I heard nothing. The silence and darkness was suffocating. Suffocating because I knew I was confined to my tent – walking outside alone would be suicide – and my only source of light was my headlamp, one candle, and the glow of the second hand on my wristwatch. It was 9:00pm and my watch was advancing very slowly.

I reminded myself that once upon a time I was a field biologist and quite experienced in nature. I pulled out my sandwich and began feeling at ease. Then, a loud splash and the unmistakable bellowing of a very nearby hippopotamus. This kicked-off an evening of splashing and incessant bellowing from what must have been dozens of nearby hippos. I thought about how funny hippos look and the board game I used to play as a child called Hungry Hungry Hippos – anything to improve the mood. Too bad I already knew that hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal (except perhaps cape buffalo).

Before I finished my sandwich I heard a lion roaring in the distance. I wondered if he could smell my sandwich. Better yet, I wondered if he could smell me! I got up and re-checked the zipper on my tent – yeap! …it was closed all the way. But, the front of my tent was a mesh screen and anything with good night vision (such as lions) could easily see me in my tent. No privacy here.

I was being irrational. After all, I thought, why would a lion be interested in me when there are plenty of other things out there for them to eat? But none of that mattered to me at that moment. Three days earlier in the Ngorongoro Crater, I watched a lioness stalk a warthog. She crossed right in front of my vehicle. Her eyes were fixed on her target as she slid into a ditch. Soon enough the warthog came to that ditch for a drink and we all knew what was going to happen. She leapt out; the warthog flipped into the air in terror and desperation. There was a short chase before the lioness caught her victim. I could see the warthog’s legs flapping in the air and I could hear its terrifying screams and squeals. I couldn’t believe that after all of this time lions haven’t learned how to kill more quickly. The rest of the pride sprinted over and shortly after there were no more screams. The guy next to me whispered, “it’s like Jurassic Park here.” He was not smiling.

I kept thinking about that as I sat alone in the dark in my tent. I also thought that perhaps, someplace out there some kid is sitting on a sofa under the protection of a nice sturdy home watching a documentary on the Grumeti River. I looked at my watch, 9:08pm. It is going to be a long night. Long live sofas and sturdy homes.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Gray Shades of Ecotourism

We live in a gray world. Nothing is wholly bad or wholly good. This is certainly true with ecotourism in the Galápagos Islands.

On the one hand, ecotourism has been blamed for much of the recent woes occurring in the Galápagos Islands. Over the past 30 or so years, the Galápagos have experienced an ecotourism pilgrimage of remarkable proportions. The number of people touring the islands has increased from about 2,000 in 1970 to an estimated 140,000 in 2007. Mainland Ecuadorians – searching for a livable wage and a better life – have followed the tourists to the islands. The number of people living in the islands have increased at a rate of about 4% per year and now number about 30,000. Impressive considering the islands contain very few resources to sustain human life – fresh water supplies are scarce, forest resources are basically nonexistent, and very little land is suitable for agriculture. As a result, nearly everything edible and material has to be imported from someplace far away. This creates problems. Harmful fungi, plants, insects (i.e. fire ants, wasps, aphids, etc.), and mammals (such as black rats) harbor themselves within the cargo destined for the Galápagos. Once introduced to the islands, they assault endemic scalesia trees, giant tortoises, finches, and everything. Today, the situation is so bad that introduced plants have surpassed the number of native plants throughout the archipelago.

Furthermore, most imports make a one-way journey to the islands. Once used, solid waste is either buried or burned in the islands. This, of course, creates pollution which effects this fragile ecosystem as evidenced by the declining number of endemic populations and unsanitary drinking water.

Unfortunately, these problems are reinforcing. That is, more tourists are transferring more money to an ever-increasing population. This population then demands more goods, services, and extractive resources. This, in turn, creates more imports that introduce more exotic species, solid waste, pollution, and ecosystem degradation.

A fundamental tenet of ecotourism is to provide the local population with enough income so that they will want to preserve the ecosystem that attracts the tourists. Thus far, however, this model is failing the Galápagos Islands. The ultimate insult to the people of Ecuador and the Galápagos tourism industry came on June 26 of this year when the United Nations officially placed the archipelago on their ill-famed “World Heritage Site in Danger” list. Reasons include unsustainable growth in the number of tourists visiting the islands, unsustainable growth in the number of people living in the islands, increasing numbers of introduced species, and illegal commercial fishing in Galápagos waters.

However, we live in a gray world and nothing is wholly bad. So, it is important to also remember the benefits of ecotourism.

Ecotourism in the Galápagos is a $150 million per year industry. The portion of this money that ends up in the hands of the local population has provided them with a better quality of life. The education system has been improving, health care is better, and the eyes of local villagers shine with hope for a prosperous future. Last week I saw a parade of school children march through downtown Puerto Ayora. This was no rag-tag parade: the children sporting fancy costumes streamed by for nearly 20 minutes. They were dressed as boobies, frigate birds, giant tortoises, dolphins, and all things natural. If these children can learn to love and appreciate Galápagos wildlife then there is hope.

The tourism industry also supports conservation efforts and the long-term protection of these islands. Vigilant tour operators report illegal fishing as they patrol Galápagos waters. Tourist dollars have helped to eradicate introduced goats and feral pigs from northern Isabela and Santiago Island – introductions that occurred long before tourists began visiting the islands. Visitor donations are also used to help repatriate giant tortoises into the wild, to educate the local population on issues of conservation, to implement recycling programs, and others. Clearly, tourism provides an important source of revenue for conservation efforts.

The benefits of tourism are not confined to island inhabitants. Visitors are given a first-hand education on contemporary environmental issues. They take this education back home and share it with others. Tourists are reminded how much we need healthy ecosystems and how these ecosystems provide us with clean air, clean water, food, and recreation. Because natural resources are rare in the Galápagos, they serve as an important reminder of the vital connection between human communities and our natural world; a connection that has been all but lost for a vast majority of our planet’s urbanites.

Most important of all, tourists experience a profound connection with other living creatures. The Galápagos facilitates this connection better than any other place on earth. Galápagos wildlife does not fear, hide, or scurry away from people. Rather, people are often forced to step over sleeping sea lions, nesting boobies, or sun bathing iguanas. Call it what you want, but the fact is animals in the Galápagos trust humans and for a few days human visitors feel like a welcomed part of the global community. Tourists experience a sense of planetary innocence. I can’t emphasize enough how powerful this is. People who visit the islands can never again watch an animal flee from sight without wondering “why? ...what have we (as humans) done to animals all over the world to make them so afraid of us?”

Finally, it is more than obvious how much people need other living things. It is sometimes humorous to watch kids and adults alike interact with the Galápagos wildlife. People are drawn to the wildlife like magnets – they want to get as close as possible. They want to walk off the trails to get closer; they want to touch the sea lions, giant tortoises, and boobies. This magnetic attraction (between people and wildlife) is so strong that it is a constant labor for the naturalists to remind people that it is against park rules to do so. In short, people need nature, and though we sometimes forget this, the Galápagos reminds all visitors of this important need. I am certain people who visit the islands become ambassadors for nature even if they were not before. Lately, many people are quick to point out the negatives of ecotourism. They pay little attention to these benefits.

Back in the U.S., some people have told me that they would never visit the islands because they do not want to contribute to their degradation. While this self-imposed “boycott” may absolve them from personal guilt, it will in no way solve the problems facing the Galápagos. On the contrary, it would be heartbreaking if tourism failed in the Galápagos. It would be another example of how human communities were unable to coexist with ecological communities. The fact is, sooner or later, humans are going to have to learn how to live in harmony with nature. The reason is simple, human communities are dependent on healthy ecosystems and the human hand is everywhere. We can no longer feel good about creating artificial boundaries around our world’s most precious places and think we can protect them. So, can humans coexist with nature? While the answer is very much in doubt, a lot of progress is being made in the Galápagos Islands.

A couple weeks ago, two large wind turbines were off-loaded onto San Cristobol Island. A third turbine will be erected by October and when this happens nearly one half of San Cristobol’s energy needs will be met by this clean renewable source. Similarly, Isabela and Santa Cruz Islands have already installed solar technologies. More progress has been made with recycling and reducing solid waste. Metropolitan Touring (the company I work with in the Galápagos) established the Galápagos Foundation in 1998 that initiated a recycling program. As a result, in 2006, 40% of all Galápagos solid waste was recycled. Plastic and cardboard are returned on cargo ships and glass is processed on the islands and used to manufacture paving tiles. These tiles are used for the roads and walkways on Santa Cruz and San Cristobol Islands. Thus far, nearly 600 tons of solid waste has been recycled.

Besides recycling, the Galápagos Foundation also uses some of its donations for educating the local population on environmental issues and implementing sustainable agriculture and a small sustainable fishery.

Since Charles Darwin’s visit in 1835, the Galápagos Islands have played an important role on the global scientific stage. These islands are the cradle of evolutionary thinking and helped us understand, fundamentally, the way our natural world works. The Galápagos Islands can once again be of critical importance to all of humanity. Imagine if people learned how to live in harmony with nature in the Galápagos. Perhaps this could serve as a model for other human communities and in the process help humans figure out a way to share this planet indefinitely.

In 1984, the Galápagos Islands became a United Nations Man and Biosphere Reserve. A designation declaring the islands of global importance to both the natural and social sciences. In other words, a designation that strives to build a sustainable human population within a fragile and precious ecosystem. Those of us who take this designation serious believe that the greatest gift that the Galápagos will provide our planet is yet to occur. I believe this is the great challenge and potential magic of today’s Galápagos.

Securing a sustainable future will not be easy but the immediate road ahead is quite clear. First, immigration to the islands must be halted. Second, the number of tourists visiting the islands must be capped. Third, if Ecuador is unable to police its waters for illegal fishing, then the world community must step in. Either way, the unsustainable harvest of shark fins, sea cucumbers, lobster, and all kinds of fish must be stopped. Fourth, cargo leaving the mainland for the Galápagos must be carefully quarantined for exotic species. And, fifth, the local community must be given a thorough environmental education. Only then will they learn to love the islands, and consequently, become the angels that guard them.

As we think of the future of the Galápagos, it is important to remember two important realities. First, people will always be a part of the Galápagos ecosystem (as tourists and as residents). So, sustainable planning must be a priority. Second, it is not too late. Ninety-seven percent of the islands are off-limits to residents and tourists, nearly all native and endemic wildlife can still be found in the Galápagos, and the Galápagos Islands are still the largest most pristine oceanic island chain in the world. As the world community considers the future of the Galápagos, they ought to pose the question, “how can we make ecotourism a lighter shade of gray?”