My return to the Galapagos has been preceded by the return of the Galapagos Island’s most famous prodigal son, Lonesome George. The world’s last remaining Pinta Island tortoise died in 2012 and following his death, the decision was made to have his body preserved.
There followed two years of skillful taxidermy, undertaken by George Dante, founder of Wildlife Preservations based in New Jersey. From 2014, Lonesome George became the reptilian darling of museum lovers in New York, before he finally made his journey of repatriation to Ecuador on February 16th, 2017. After landing in Guayaquil and being declared the “illustrious son of our islands”, George made his way across the Pacific to Santa Cruz Island where he was greeted with the emotive cry of “Bienvenido, Solitario”. His final resting place is the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Centre where he has his own room, entitled the “Symbol of Hope”.
But does Lonesome George really represent hope? The sad story of an animal that outlived his own breed to become the last of his kind, strikes me as being more a symbol of despair. His death from old age in 2012 was an unwelcome reminder of the impotency of science and conservation in the face of extinction. Inevitably, his death attracted the vultures to their laptops, writing headlines such as ‘Paradise in Peril’ and ‘Paradise on the Brink’. This notion of ‘paradise’ is a burden that weighs heavy on the islands. It is an unfortunate truth that if a place is portrayed as paradise on earth than any piece of bad news, no matter how trivial, can be spun as proof of a paradise in decline.
On my return to the Galapagos I want to ignore the hyperbole to see if there really is cause for hope on the Enchanted Islands. It was 14 years ago that I last visited the islands and much has changed during this time. One of the major developments is in the growth of land based tourism in the Galapagos, especially on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. Many see this as a negative development but is it possible that this is a good thing? I want to keep an open mind, ask questions but see with my own eyes and draw my own conclusions. The question I am eager to answer as impartially as I can, is whether tourism on the islands can be a force for good? The Galapagos Islands provide a yardstick against which the impact of sustainable travel as a whole should be measured. If tourism has a role to play in conservation then it has to succeed in the Galapagos where the spotlight shines most bright and the stakes are at their highest. I am both excited and nervous at the prospect of what I will find.