The Galápagos gave Darwin a free rein and ample inspiration. Now, Rebecca Willis finds, they are tightly policed—and make you think about the destruction of species

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013

SOME DIFFERENCES BETWEEN Charles Darwin’s visit to the Galápagos islands in 1835, and ours in 2012:

We go ashore for a couple of hours in our organised group at a designated landing place in a time-slot allocated by the National Park Service. We walk on paths marked by black-and-white posts, and if we stray the guide calls out urgently: "Please come back! We don’t walk there!" We must leave the island and be back on board our boat by 6pm.

Darwin went ashore whenever conditions allowed and explored where he wanted. He camped for a week on Santiago island (now known as James) while the Beagle went off to get fresh water. It was hard to find a place to pitch the tent, because the beach was so pocked with the burrows of land iguanas.

We look at the animals, which have no fear of humans, and our guide tells us how they mate, how they feed, how they raise their young. But we must not go too close; we must not touch the animals, or let them touch us.

Darwin opened up the stomach of one of the marine iguanas—he called them "large, most disgusting, clumsy lizards"—to find that they lived on seaweed alone. A crew member on the Beagle threw another one into the sea with a weight attached and found it was still alive when he pulled it up an hour later.

There are now about 30,000 people living in the Galápagos. When Darwin visited there were probably two or three hundred. When we lurch off our boat in the main town on Santa Cruz island, we stay in a hotel where we share the swimming pool with six ducks, a heron and a lava gull. Darwin didn’t.

UNTIL RECENTLY—AND the arrival of man is recent, very recent—change happened slowly in the Galápagos. Genetic adaptation moves in infinitesimal increments: it is the work of millennia, not moments. But before life could begin making the subtle, gradual adjustments to conditions on each island that Darwin was later to notice, it had to arrive here at the whim of the currents—seeds dispersed by the sea, creatures clinging to a drifting log or a raft of branches or leaves. And even before that the volcanoes rose with geological slowness out of the ocean. It was not until the last syllable of recorded time that man stepped onto the scene: the islands were discovered by the Bishop of Panama, blown off-course on his way to Peru, in 1535.

Since then the pace of change has accelerated to ecosystem-crushing velocity. The early explorers, and the buccaneers, pirates, convicts, whalers and would-be settlers who followed them, killed huge quantities of wildlife to eat and took more to restock their boats. The animals were pathetically easy to catch—"a gun", Darwin wrote, "is here almost super-fluous; for with the muzzle of one I pushed a hawk off the branch of a tree." Man also introduced species that would not otherwise have reached the islands and had no place in the finely honed and balanced scheme of life; over half of the plants today are "introduced" species, while feral goats, dogs and rats have wrought destruction on endemic species and pose a huge threat to the islands’ ecology, which scientists are engaged in a constant battle to check.

After Darwin’s time, Victorian collectors continued to plunder the islands, and then zealous zoo-makers came along and took away even more of the wildlife to "save" species from extinction. It was only in 1935 that the Galápagos Memorial Expedition, marking the centenary of Darwin’s visit, mooted the idea that parts of the archipelago might become nature reserves, and not until 1959, a hundred years after the publication of "On the Origin of Species", that the Charles Darwin Foundation was established. After 400 years, in which man had done irreversible damage, the tide began to turn towards conservation.

The change in the relationship between man and the Galápagos—and nature generally—was kick-started by the man known locally as Carlo Darwin. It tells of the shift in man’s sense of his place in the world—from a human-centric view of the planet where man had dominion over God’s creatures, to a holistic view of the planet as a single organism of which we are but one part, and a destructive one at that. That is the real difference between Darwin’s visit and our own 177 years later. His was a voyage of discovery. Ours was a visit of what you might call un-discovery: looking but not touching, treading lightly and leaving most of the place well alone. The age of Darwin was intent on understanding the world at all costs, whereas we understand the price the planet has paid for that knowledge, and are trying to put the lid back on Pandora’s box.

We must not take food ashore, and the cabin of the aeroplane in which we arrive from mainland Ecuador is sprayed before landing. We may not take anything away from the islands as a souvenir—not a shell or a bone or a twig; our luggage, we are told, will be scanned and searched for such contraband as we depart, and we must “leave only footprints and take only memories".

Darwin collected crates of specimens of the local flora and fauna for study back in England—including 26 species of land bird from a single island. It is not known whether he and the crew of the Beagle introduced alien species on their leather boots, through which the heat of the black sand burnt the soles of their feet.

Top the marine iguana is endemic to the Galápagos and, uniquely among lizards, forages in the sea