Apr. 25, 2013

A delegation from BGU’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research (BIDR) led by Prof. Ariel Novoplansky has toured the Galapagos Islands and has signed a cooperation agreement with the Directorate of the National Park to promote the conservation of the endangered biological diversity of the islands.

Isolated tropical islands are the dream of every tourist, adventure-seeker and nature lover.  They are favored with a comfortable climate, wild vistas and excellent conditions for a variety of nature and sport activities. However, isolated islands are also rare ‘natural laboratories’, where the special ecological conditions and extreme isolation create unique and stunningly beautiful biological diversity. Indeed, it was his visits to such archipelagos that prompted Charles Darwin to formulate some of the central principles of his Theory of Evolution.

The Galapagos Islands belong to Ecuador and lie on the Equator, about 1,000 kilometers off the west coast of South America. So what is the secret to the magic of this Garden of Eden? A fast check reveals that the Galapagos biodiversity is neither greater nor more unique than that of other archipelagos, such as the Hawaiian or the Canary Islands. What makes these islands unique is their recent history – while most of the major archipelagos around the world had been discovered by the 16th century, most of the other archipelagos were rapidly settled by man, and their ecological systems had been rapidly degraded, or even totally devastated. During all that time, the Galapagos Islands were rather “neglected”, occasionally frequented by whale hunters and pirates, which hardly affected its unique ecosystems. Since Ecuador annexed the Galapagos 180 years ago and only started to settle it less than a hundred years ago, its rare natural treasures have been mostly preserved until very recently.

However, the relief from human intervention has abruptly ended and in spite of over 50 years of dedicated management and conservation of 97% of the area of the archipelago and its surrounding waters by the authorities of the Galapagos National Park, the conservation policies must urgently change.

“In spite of excellent management and meticulous policing of ecotourism, a full-blown ecological disaster is unfolding before our eyes, inflicted by the devastating effects of invasive species,” says Novoplansky.

Rising demand is pushing for ever-increasing rates of development of the local tourism industry, which encourages greater imports of various goods, food and fresh agriculture produce from the mainland. Without any external intervention, labor and production costs on the islands are much higher than on the mainland, dictating the abandonment of most of the island’s farms and the transition of most of the islands' workforce to the tourism industry. These processes expose the unique and sensitive biodiversity of the islands to the extremely destructive effects of invasive species such as feral domestic animals, aggressive weedy plants, various insect pests and alien marine organisms. Increasing numbers of such organisms arrive to the islands through the delivery routes from the mainland and multiply with great vigor in both natural ecosystems and abandoned farms, outcompeting the local fauna and flora and changing entire ecosystems existing nowhere else in the world.

Upon the invitation of the Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment and the Directorate of the Galapagos National Park, a delegation from the Center of International Conventions of the Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research visited the Galapagos for work meetings and field excursions with managers, rangers, policy-makers, farmers and conservation experts. The visit ended with the signing of a cooperation agreement to figure out the best ways to minimize the detrimental effects of invasive species to the biodiversity, natural habitats and agricultural areas of the archipelago. The project will be conducted by joint Ecuadorian-Israeli teams, pursuing novel nature management schemes that will help rehabilitate natural ecosystems by developing agricultural methodologies and water technologies, which will increase local agricultural production, and reduce the dependency of the islands on the imports of fresh produce from the mainland.

In addition to Novoplansky, the delegation included Prof. Uriel Safriel, who heads the Center of International Conventions at the BIDR, Dr. Alon Ben-Gal, a desert agriculture expert from the Volcani Center of the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture, Prof. Aliza Fleischer, an agricultural economist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Prof. Noam Weisbrod of the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research, BIDR. Novoplansky is a member of the Mitrani Department of Desert Ecology, Swiss Institute for Dryland Environmental and Energy Research, BIDR.

Competing for the same natural resources, agriculture and nature conservation are usually considered competing and antagonistic forces, but not so in the Galapagos. “The current project is based on a new premise, whereby agricultural developmental is not necessarily used as a powerful toolbox for increasing food production, fighting poverty and improving standard of living. In fragile places like the Galapagos, sensible conservation strategies may take advantage of carefully-crafted agricultural practices to combat and prevent the destructive effects of invasive species to unique ecosystems and endangered biodiversity, the fate of which we are all so anxious about”, says Novoplansky.

The Ecuadorian ambassador to Israel will be visiting the BIDR at the beginning of May in the context of this collaboration.