A journalist repudiates the usual Discovery Channel views of the remarkable islands and examines the lives of the many who call the Galápagos home.
When he began this project, D’Orso (Like Judgment Day: The Ruin and Redemption of a Town Called Rosewood, not reviewed, etc.) held the common belief that the Galápagos is largely an unpopulated natural laboratory where unique animal and plant species exist undisturbed, seen only by the curious eyes of scientists and eco-tourists. Not so, discovered D’Orso, who made four trips to the islands in the course of writing this stunning and depressing account of human beings once again despoiling a paradise. In was not until 1959 that the islands were declared an Ecuadorian national park, and the terms of that legislation allowed current residents to remain. That handful of people has grown into thousands, many of them impoverished, making their livings by illegal fishing, hunting, and harvesting—by the thousands—sea cucumbers, whose putative aphrodisiac qualities make them valuable in Asia but whose absence from the food chain threatens other species. D’Orso employs several characters throughout, most notably Jack Nelson, who, in Puerto Ayora, operates a no-frills hotel that serves as a membrane through which information passes to D’Orso. But he doesn’t just sit in island bars listening to stories. He visits settlements, interviews hookers, eco-warriors, government officials, artists, and professional goat-hunters (hundreds of thousands of feral goats, donkeys, and pigs threaten the native wildlife and vegetation). Add to this already rather nasty stew a flavoring of government corruption, incompetence, and venality. Perpetually unstable, the government of Ecuador (600 miles away) was enduring a variety of economic and political shocks during D’Orso’s research, and he constantly reminds us not just of the vulnerability of the islands but also of the human institutions that ought to be protecting them.
The rotting underside of a lovely, fragile leaf. Disturbing. (16 b&w photographs; 14 maps, not seen)