Getting the chance to visit Galapagos last year was a dream come true for me. For years I had watched documentaries and read books about these enchanted islands and as a biologist I dearly wanted to witness the dramatic volcanic landscapes, harbouring the most extraordinary myriad of species.
Thanks in no small part to the legacy of Charles Darwin's groundbreaking journey on The Beagle, and the unique ecology of these islands, Galapagos is never out of the conservation spotlight. This has resulted in the protection of 97% of the archipelago, and the opportunity for a unique wildlife experience. It's one of the last places on earth where you can experience wildlife as it might have looked before our human footprint began to make its presence felt.
Here, it's possible to wander amongst basking marine iguanas, sea lion pups learning to survive as they mimic their mothers, male fur seals jostling for supremacy, with majestic Galapagos hawks presiding over the scene. No animal pays the slightest bit of attention to you, and it feels like you are part of nature, not merely a spectator of it. Such a wildlife encounter leaves a powerful impression - this is a place where you can breathe, wonder at the beauty of our planet, and even perhaps renew your faith that in some places at least we are getting things right.
But Galapagos is not immune to the impact of the modern world. It is bowing under the pressure of our human footprint like never before - under the tonnes of plastics deposited on its shores every year, as a result of the dramatic reduction of endemic species because of the invasive species we've introduced, and as it mourns the loss of all but one of its coral reefs as the oceans continue to warm.
And yet somehow, despite the countless documentaries showcasing this extraordinary, other-worldly place, despite the thousands of visitors who are lucky enough to lose themselves here for a while, there remains a disconnect about our relationship with this magnificent place. Somehow we still think that this is someone else's problem to fix.
But here's the thing. Galapagos matters. It matter to us, here in the UK. The island chain's ecosystem is inextricably connected to all other ecosystems on the planet, which means that what we do here at home affects Galapagos, and all the other precious wild places left on earth for that matter. If we allow the health of Galapagos to falter, our own health will inevitable fail.
It can be a difficult concept to grasp, and we humans are superbly good at short term vision and even sticking our heads in the sand, especially when there is so much going on in the world that seems to demand our attention. But there are many small and easy changes we can decide to make to our lives today that can make a very real difference. And next time we marvel at the beauty of places like Galapagos we can proudly know that daily, we are helping to secure their future:
• Decide today that you will never use a straw again. Refuse them in bars and fast food restaurants. In the UK alone, just from McDonald's outlets, 35 million straws are discarded every day and they are one of the biggest culprits when it comes to the destruction of our marine wildlife.
• Buy a reusable coffee cup and never throw away another unrecyclable cup from the plethora of coffee shops that still refuse to provide eco-friendly ones.
• Do the same with your water bottle. And rest easy that you are not ingesting leached chemicals from single use plastic bottles.
• Book your next holiday to a sustainable eco-lodge that contributes to local communities, become a member of citizen science and volunteer to monitor wildlife there and contribute to the protection of ecosystems. It will be the most rewarding and feel-good holiday you'll ever go on.
• Meat lovers have the highest carbon footprint. Cut down on red meat and do your bit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from livestock farming, which produces up to 50% of all man-made emissions.
• Change your light bulbs to compact fluorescent bulbs. They last for years and save you money - it's a no brainer.
• Refrigerators are the biggest consumers of electricity in the home. Even turning down your thermostat by one degree makes a big difference. In the winter turn it down by two degrees.
• Turn off the water when you are brushing your teeth. This is an easy habit to develop and saving every bit of water adds up.
• Eat less and eat more organic, local produce to reduce the use of toxic chemicals in the environment and the carbon footprint from transport vehicles. We all eat too much anyway, and the more we demand organic food as consumers the lower the prices will get.
• Speak up and make your voice heard to your local government representative. It's time to proudly take ownership of protecting the wild places we love. Spread the word and tell your friends. It feels really good, even empowering, to make these changes together.
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