The Galapagos Islands are struggling from the growth of ecotourism
Although Chapel Hill is thousands of miles away from the ecological paradise of the Galapagos Islands, researchers at UNC Chapel Hill have been working closely with colleagues at the University of San Francisco de Quito Galapagos Science Center to develop strategies to maintain the World Heritage site for future generations. Their work aims to help the Ecuadorian Government make a plan that will balance economic development and resource conservation on the islands, which are in the Pacific Ocean, 1000 kilometers from the mainland.
The Galapagos Islands are home to renowned sea turtles, giant tortoises, marine iguanas and unique landscapes. These natural features drew 225,000 tourists in 2015. As a result, the local population has grown to approximately 30,000 people who have migrated in search of higher wages in the booming ecotourism industry. This growth could potentially strain the delicate environment of the islands.
This prompted the Ecuadorian government to recruit Steve Walsh, director of the UNC-Chapel Hill center, and Carlos Mena, director of the Galapagos Science Center to build a model to predict the of number of tourists and residents that the islands could accommodate before the islands are damaged. The findings were published in a paper in the Oct. 10th issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Their work combined data relating to demographics, tourism, the economy and the environment to predict how much growth the islands can sustain by 2033. Their models account for factors such as the Galapagos society, human-environment interactions and how people function within both human and natural systems. It also contains data extending well beyond the islands themselves. Walsh refined the model to reflect social and ecological factors worldwide. “Our modeling is an attempt to help guide wise stewardship of a special place, and I think the models give us the opportunity to create a computerized natural laboratory to test scenarios of change,” he said. “As we build these models, the notion is to understand the Galapagos and to export them to similarly challenged places around the globe.”
Walsh praised the Ecuadorian government for their foresight in conducting this work: “The Ecuadorian government and the Galapagos National Park are asking the exact right questions,” said Walsh, the Lyle V. Jones Distinguished Professor of Geography at UNC-Chapel Hill. “No one wants a boom and bust situation. We want wise, managed growth within the concept of sustainability.” This study’s aim was to help governments make more informed decisions about the sustainability of island ecosystems and future threats. “We see our models as tools for decision-makers that can help them understand and evaluate the value of special places and the risks they’re willing to tolerate,” said Walsh. “Our models allow decision- makers to look at scenarios of change and to choose what best matches their management goals and their sense of value and risk.”
Although all computer modeling studies have some degree of uncertainty, Walsh notes that this study is based on real data and quantifiable relationships between the variables. “We’re not simulating data. We’re not making up data. We’re not using theory to guide it,” said Walsh. “It’s real data and real functions, and that improves the performance of the models.”
This study was conducted at the Galapagos Science Center, which was founded in 2011 as a joint effort between UNC-Chapel Hill and the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. The facility is located on San Cristobal Island and has the goal of promoting science and education to help protect the fragile island ecosystems and enhance the lives of their inhabitants.
The center houses faculty and students from both UNC and USFQ. There are four laboratories focusing on terrestrial ecology, marine ecology, geospatial technologies, microbiology and genetics. Researchers have access to permanent staff, field measurement equipment and several permitted projects that extend across the sciences, the Galapagos initatives focus on population, health and environment through a focus on understanding the complex interactions among the social, terrestrial and marine systems of the Galapagos islands.