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Galápagos Islands: Is there room for humans in 'nature's laboratory'?

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Nearly all of the sea, coasts, and mountains that make up the Galápagos belong to the national park. Residents can only live within 3 percent of the territory. But within that space, the population has surged.

Santa Cruz is the most populous Galápagos Island. Its main town, Puerto Ayora, resembles any other Latin American city with food stalls, tire shops, and public phone centers lining the streets. Ten years ago about 10,000 people called this city home. Now, because of migration and high birthrates, the number has nearly doubled.

In 2007, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) placed the Galápagos on its list of endangered World Heritage Sites because of overcrowding – they say the islands have a total of 30,000 residents now – and the threats posed by tourism, invasive species, and illegal fishing.

Many are surprised to learn that people actually inhabit "nature's laboratory." Despite its isolation, however, which allowed for the evolution of finches, blue-footed boobies, and playful sea lions that show little fear of tourists, humans have had contact for five centuries here.

New residents continue to arrive, taking advantage of well-paid jobs in tourism, which grows unabated – quadrupling from 1990 to 2008, to more than 170,000 visitors last year. Tourists and residents require more food and fuel each year, and the boats and planes that bring them here also bring with them mosquitoes, flies, rats, and plants that overrun the island's endemic species. According to Ingala, the regional planning office, from January to September of last year, about 5,500 tons of cargo arrived by ship.

"Migration and tourism are among the biggest threats to the Galápagos," says Eliecer Cruz, a former governor of Galápagos who now works with the World Wildlife Fund. Both contribute to invasive species, such as blackberries, which strangle native plants and destroy ecosystems.

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