“Hardly a day goes by that I do not think about these wonderful islands,” writes Nicholls (The Way of the Panda: The Curious History of China's Political Animal, 2011, etc.), combining natural history and an impassioned plea for maintaining the pristine ecology of the Galápagos Islands, home to more than 4,000 native species.
Inspired by his first visit to the islands in 2003, the author became an ambassador for the Galápagos Conservation Trust and editor of its magazine, Galápagos Matters. He is hopeful that despite many of the difficulties in maintaining the ecology, its iconic status as the inspiration for Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection will aid the efforts of the Ecuadorian government and UNESCO to enforce its protected status. In 1959, 97 percent of its landmass was declared a national park, and a marine reserve was established in 1999; since then, major resources have been devoted to ecological restoration. The Galápagos were only sparsely inhabited before 1941, when, in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States temporarily established a naval base. Over the past 50 years, tourism has been an important spur to immigration to the islands. Nicholls considers corruption to be a serious enforcement problem, allowing violations of protective regulations, but he is optimistic that these problems can be brought under control with support from the international community. He relates how giant tortoises were almost hunted to extinction as a source of food, as were whales, dolphins and sea cucumbers by commercial exploitation. The author tells of how, in the 1970s, scientists discovered underwater ocean vents, revealing an extraordinary “community of weird creatures” that live in “total darkness.” He also covers the recent evolution of island finches, their mating practices, and the migration of sea birds and seeds.
A fascinating overview of the natural and human history of this remarkable archipelago, from prehistoric times to the present.