Charles Darwin would probably turn in his grave. On the Galapagos Archipelago, which served as the central field of study for the British naturalist's theory of evolution in the mid-19th century, more and more plastic and other garbage residues are being found in the feces of rare giant tortoises and other animals.

Tjerk Brühwiller

Latin America correspondent based in São Paulo.

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The extent of this is documented in a study recently published in the journal Environmental Pollution. Researchers from the Charles Darwin Foundation, the Catholic University of Ecuador, Saint Louis Zoo, and Spanish and Australian universities examined more than 5500,1000 turtle fecal samples from areas of the archipelago where giant tortoises are exposed to human activities, as well as more than <>,<> samples from protected national park zones.

More and more people are living in the Galapagos Islands

While almost no residues were found in the national park turtles, the researchers found an increased level of plastic residues in the feces of the animals from areas that are relatively densely populated and used economically. Endangered species such as the unique Western Santa Cruz giant tortoises (Chelonoidis porteri) that live on Santa Cruz, the most populated Galapagos Island, are also affected. From the airport on the small side island of Baltra, a road runs across the island to Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the archipelago. Santa Cruz is also used for agriculture.

The population of the Galapagos Islands has increased greatly. In 1972, a census in the archipelago showed a population of 3488. By the 15s, this number had risen to more than 000,2010 people, and by 25 there were already more than 000,40 people living on the Galapagos Islands. And a good ten years later, the population is estimated at over 000,200. The trend is related to the increase in tourism: around 000,<> tourists visited the archipelago last year.

The pressure on the unique flora and fauna of the archipelago is growing. Due to the settlement of the islands, foreign small animals such as dogs and cats, as well as parasites and pathogens, reached the islands in the past. It is precisely the plastic waste that ends up in the environment that is increasingly becoming a serious threat. "Plastics remain in the environment for much longer than the product is useful," explains Karina Ramón, the lead author of the study.

The waste could also cause injuries, intestinal obstructions, and even hormonal changes. The authors conclude that there is still an environmental problem in populated areas and that protected areas are essential for the endangered species.

Single-use plastic items are already prohibited

The Galapagos Islands already have some regulations in place to prevent plastic waste. Since 2015, for example, the sale and use of numerous single-use plastic items such as plastic bags or straws have been banned. Various campaigns are also being launched to raise awareness among the local population.

In 1959, on the 100th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's groundbreaking theory, the Ecuadorian government declared 97.5 percent of the archipelago's land area a national park, excluding the areas already settled. Later, extensive marine reserves were added. In May, the Ecuadorian government and Credit Suisse reached an agreement on the largest debt-for-nature swap to date. In the process, the major Swiss bank bought back Ecuadorian government bonds with a nominal value of 1.6 billion dollars. Ecuador is investing the funds released by the buyback in the protection of the island archipelago.