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The marine iguana is one of the animals found only in the Galapagos Islands but which has suffered from the presence of introduced species. Leonardo DiCaprio’s donation will help reintroduce and increase native animal populations. Photo: Getty Images

Leonardo DiCaprio’s US$43 million donation for rewilding Galapagos islands – money well spent?

  • DiCaprio’s donation comes at a time of reduced income from tourism and cuts in scientific funding due to the pandemic
  • Although protected by law, many Galapagos native species are under threat from introduced animals

Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio’s recently announced donation of US$43 million to support rewilding in the Galapagos has brought those fabled Ecuadorean islands back into the headlines at a time when almost no one is able to visit them. 

But some may wonder whether DiCaprio’s millions might have been better spent elsewhere; some place in which conservation is less advanced.

In recent years, tourism to the Galapagos Islands has been changing, with cruise vessels becoming ever smaller and more luxurious. But opportunities for principally land-based budget visits have also increased, with cheap accommodation in the islands’ few settlements used as a base for seaborne day trips. However, merely 5 per cent of the islands’ territory is open to visitors.

Sensible restrictions abound to protect the islands’ species. Big cruise vessels are kept away and the total number of berths on all the smaller boats operating in Galapagos waters is not allowed to increase. New vessels must await the retirement of old ones.

Ecoventura’s 10-cabin MS Theory. Photo: courtesy of Ecoventura

The number of people landed at any location at one time is carefully managed, and time slots must be booked. It’s common, even from the deck of Ecoventura’s merely 10-cabin MS Theory, to have no other boats in sight while inflatable Zodiacs ferry passengers for a walk along a rocky beach deserted except for a carpet of spiny marina iguanas, or a wander amid scrub brightened by brilliant white booby chicks.

Visitors may snorkel amid sea lions – perhaps while a heron tosses back its head to aid the passage down its narrow gullet of a still-wriggling baby turtle – with just a few companions.

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On board the Theory, loaded with all the equipment well-heeled visitors might need, the stress is on reduced environmental impact at every turn. Fuel burning, hull paint, waste disposal, plastics, recycling, reusability, biosecurity and much more have been carefully considered.

Scientific conservation programmes abound, and rules concerning the distance to be kept from wildlife are strictly enforced by Ecoventura’s guides, who are well-informed on everything from breeding cycles to geology and the exact date on which English naturalist Charles Darwin stepped ashore at a particular spot. 

On Isabela they point out how the land iguanas are fewer and smaller than on other islands, probably because introduced goats ate all the food, but also describe successful measures to eradicate those goats. On Seymour Island, booby numbers are growing because of a programme to eradicate the introduced rats that ate eggs and chicks.

Visitors can snorkel with sea lions in the Galapagos, but have to keep a minimum distance from most animals.

In short, it seems as though the Galapagos, despite a history of environmental destruction by whalers and other buccaneers, and the introduction of species that outcompeted the natives, might now be a model for other destinations to follow in making tourism and conservation mesh. 

But all tourism to the Galapagos shut down completely early in the pandemic, and after reopening in July last year, the usual monthly figure of 23,000 visitors is still down to just 6,000. Scientists from around the world have been repatriated or had to suspend research projects as movement from one island to another was forbidden. 

Tourism accounts for the majority of the economy, and scientific funding has shrunk with the loss of income from fees and permits, so perhaps DiCaprio’s donation, in fact a pledge from Re:wild, an organisation he co-founded, is timely.

The view from Bartolomé Island in the Galapagos.

And its aims are very specific, including the support of efforts already under way to restore Floreana Island, the sixth largest but home to only 140 people. Nevertheless, 13 native species need reintroducing from other islands, and 54 more are threatened, mainly by non-native cats, rats and mice. 

Threatened species include the playfully curious Floreana mocking bird, quite distinct from other Galapagos species with bars on its wings and white patches on either side of its head.

There may be a rule about keeping a modest distance from Galapagos wildlife, but most of that wildlife never got the memo; stop for a few minutes to examine an infant seal pup and not only may it waddle its way over for a closer look at you, but as you stand waiting, you may find a mockingbird attempting to untie your shoelaces.

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The lumbering giant Galapagos tortoise, with its charisma and cynical, disapproving air, may be the star turn, and in the public mind the link between the islands and one of the most important ideas a human has ever had – evolution – may be the finches, with their varied beaks, each shaped to suit an island’s specific circumstances. But Darwin was more interested in the mockingbirds, the first of which he ever saw was the Floreana.

So, insofar as the islands’ varied species were an inspiration for a Big Idea that affects our entire understanding of nature, perhaps DiCaprio’s contribution is right on the money.

The writer was a guest of Ecoventura aboard the MS Theory