Beautiful book about The Galapagos by Henry Nicholls
03 Apr 2014 09:58:15
Ritter and Strauch were joined by a trickle of other German settlers including the Wittmers, an idealistic young family, and Eloise Wagner de Bosquet, a self-styled baroness, and her lovers Lorenz and Philipsson, whom she kept in thrall by means of revealing clothes, a riding crop and a pistol. Before long, the tiny colony unravelled. Ritter and the baroness detested each other. She and Philipsson beat and starved Lorenz. One day, the two of them disappeared without trace. Then Ritter died in suspicious circumstances. Strauch, who the Wittmers said had been cruelly treated by Ritter, returned to Germany where she wrote that Lorenz had murdered the baroness and Philipsson and hidden their bodies with the Wittmers' help.For centuries, Europeans have projected their dreams on to remote islands. In The Tempest, Gonzalo imagines a world without law or property where everyone lives in innocence and harmony. Reality has been less kind. For 300 years or so after the first Spanish landfall in 1535, the Galápagos islands were a refuge for English pirates and, later, a haven for British and American whalers, who exterminated the whales and denuded the islands of all but a few of the hundreds of thousands of their giant tortoises, which were delicious to eat.In 1832, the 10-year-old Republic of Ecuador claimed sovereignty over the Galápagos and built a modest settlement, but what really put the islands on the map, at least retrospectively, was the five-week visit of Charles Darwin in 1835. As naturalist on the global survey ship HMS Beagle, Darwin noticed astonishing variations between closely related plant and animal species on islands separated by just a few miles of sea and this set his thinking on the path that led to the theory of natural selection, perhaps the most important single scientific idea anyone has ever had.Darwin was among the first Europeans to contemplate the non-human life native to the islands for what it was – rather than as something to exploit. And what an extraordinary upside-down world it was. The largest land animals are reptiles; the largest indigenous mammals are a dozen or so species of small shy creatures known as rice rats. A species of daisy has become a giant tree. Penguins swim in the tropical waters. With pink iguanas and blue-footed boobies (not to mention red-footed ones that like to hide toy plastic bassoons and other jetsam in their hilltop nests), the islands are a carnival of amazing beings that somehow thrive in a place that has reminded visitors (from a 15th-century Spanish bishop to Herman Melville) of a slag heap or the gates of hell.Henry Nicholls introduces and celebrates these wonders and more in seven short chapters covering the geology, ocean life, seabirds, plants, invertebrates, land birds and reptiles of the archipelago. Three more explore the human impact and the hope that Nicholls and others have for the islands' future. As editor of the Galápagos Conservation Trust's magazine and the author of Lonesome George, a book about the last surviving member of a species of giant tortoise that once inhabited the island of Pinta, Nicholls is well suited to the task.Galápagos, a novel by Kurt Vonnegut published in 1985 and set in the same year, describes a financial crash and global collapse resulting from the failure of elites to tackle environmental destruction and grotesque social injustice. (How very different from today.) A global pandemic wipes out all of humanity except for a tiny remnant on a cruise to the islands, and from this group the evolutionary future of humanity unfolds. From a vantage point a million years in the future, the ghostly narrator and Vietnam veteran Leon Trotsky Trout explains that humans have evolved into seal-like creatures, with flippers instead of hands and small brains that are no longer capable of the elaborate and extreme wickedness of their big-brained ancestors.For much of the last 30 to 40 years, events in the Galápagos islands have provided plenty of ammunition for the gloomy. The number of visiting tourists has grown far beyond the point conservation scientists have judged advisable. (At least five commercial flights arrive in the islands every day.) Immigrants from the Ecuadorian mainland, seeking a decent life in this relatively prosperous place, have increased the resident population almost tenfold. By the first years of this century, invasive species such as goats and rats from the mainland and destructive fishing were getting out of hand.But then things took a turn for the better. When, in 2006, a mission from Unesco's World Heritage Committee warned that the unique natural heritage of the islands was at risk, Ecuador's new president Rafael Correa reacted not as if insulted but as if genuinely concerned. His government declared the preservation of the islands a national priority. Raquel Molina, the new head of the Galápagos National Park, took her job seriously. She and her colleagues confronted the worst offenders in overfishing and irresponsible land use. As a result, they were were beaten and received death threats; Molina herself was hospitalised for a couple of months. But they didn't give up, and projects to redress the worst depredations gather speed.A series of sophisticated and expensive initiatives to rid many of the islands of goats and mainland rats have proved effective despite some sabotage. Young tortoises that hatched on the island of Pinzón in 2013 could be the first in more than 100 years to live to adulthood. If Floreana can be made rat-free, its native mockingbird, which is critically endangered, may yet recover.Nothing is settled. Other invasive species such as fire ants seem to be beyond control. The native fauna of the Galápagos will probably have to learn to live with them or perish. But in this constantly changing, constantly surprising microcosm, there are grounds for hope.
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