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A Galápagos community balances tourism and conservation

I get why people anthropomorphize the wildlife of the Galápagos. Again and again, I remind myself that the gaze of the tortoise has nothing to do with the fact that his species is on the upswing after years in decline. And the blue-footed booby isn’t just goofing off as he waddles back and forth on his clown feet; he is performing a typical mating display.

But as I watch a Galápagos sea lion pup glide past me, perform a barrel roll, a somersault, and then rocket back in the other direction, I’m fairly certain that this slippery gray missile is just as ecstatic as I am to be swimming in the protected waters of the Galápagos Marine Reserve.

Pretty soon, I’m surrounded by a whole contingent of the little misfits—five of them—gently gnawing at each other and playing chase. I decide to extricate myself before things get too rowdy—they are wild animals, after all—and I climb up on the lava rocks to appreciate their underwater acrobatics from a distance.

The giant tortoise inhabitants on Floreana Island

Kayakers in Baronesa Bay, off the coast of Floreana Island

It’s early here at Baronesa Bay on Floreana Island, and our group still has this popular spot to ourselves. That’s because we camped here the night before, as part of a test run of a WWF-supported program to engage the local community in the management and conservation of their natural environment. “It’s something we are grateful for,” says Max Freire, the head of the local government, who joined us on this camp-out adventure. “It’s a privilege to be the only ones staying here.”

Floreana Island (population 140), with its Robinson Crusoe vibe and history of intrigue and mystery, has one of the most tightly knit communities in the Galápagos. But around 2010, when the tourist boats started flocking here for day tours without previously booking, the community didn’t have the time and resources to prepare for the visitors, and just about the only thing the locals were receiving in return was their trash. In 2012, WWF helped community members identify the model of tourism they wanted and plan how to manage it long term. Then, in 2014, 43 families organized themselves into a cooperative, Centro Communitario de Floreana. Some families would run guesthouses or restaurants. Others stockpiled snorkeling gear. A central office would manage reservations in order to share the revenues equitably.

To extend the length of visitors’ stays and offer them a unique experience, locals sought to reopen a five-mile trail that went from the agricultural area in the highlands down to Post Office Bay. As a boy in the 1970s, Claudio Cruz Bedón, the island’s unofficial historian, used to take the trail once a week alone or with his father to sell fruit, marmalade, eggs, and wine to the first tourist boats that stopped by. “Sometimes, I’d stay on the boat watching TV until 2 a.m.,” he laughs.

With a landmark comanagement agreement with Galápagos National Park—the first such agreement on the islands—the community now has the exclusive rights to lead visitors on the trail and offer a secluded tenting spot, as well as to collaboratively manage other visitor sites in nearby protected areas. (This promises to be leave-no-trace camping at its finest: The community is already taking part in annual trail maintenance efforts and will assume some of the responsibility for caring for the site, and there’s talk of hauling in a portable toilet to protect the fragile environment.) The scheme will be closely monitored as a pilot for other community-based projects in the works.

“We love Floreana,” says Veronica Santamaria, head of public use for Galápagos National Park. A comanagement scheme like this may not be possible on other islands, but the point is that the park is open to finding the best strategies for working with local communities. “We know we need to be open to future challenges,” she says.

At mid-morning, we take a few dayglow green kayaks out for a tour of the bays. The sea lions, of course, aren’t far behind. With smiles on their faces. Or at least that’s what they look like to me.

"I live in Guayaquil, on Ecuador’s coast, and have always wanted to keep the incredible Galápagos ecosystem pristine. My company, Ecoventura, was the first carbon-neutral company in Ecuador, and we introduced the first hybrid energy tour boat in the Galápagos. With WWF’s support, we established the Galápagos Marine Biodiversity Fund to finance conservation projects in the Galápagos and fund local eco-initiatives. I’m so inspired by Ecuador’s effort to protect its oceans, and want to inspire others to make a difference as well.”

SANTIAGO DUNN PRESIDENT OF ECOVENTURA, A FAMILY-OWNED SUSTAINABLE TRAVEL COMPANY BASED IN ECUADOR, AND A MEMBER OF WWF’S NATIONAL COUNCIL

An eco-friendly restaurant—one example of the community managed tourism model—on Floreana Island.

Snorkeling with razor surgeonfish off the coast of Santa Cruz Island.

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World Wildlife magazine provides an inspiring, in-depth look at the connections between animals, people and our planet. Published quarterly by WWF, the magazine helps make you a part of our efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the natural world.

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