Lying six hundred miles off of the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands dot the Pacific Ocean with more than one hundred islands that are home to more than nine thousand species, many of which occur nowhere else in the world. Famous giant tortoises (Geochelone nigra), colorful land iguanas, the endangered mangrove finch (Camarhynchus heliobates) and the delicate Floreana mockingbird (Mimus trifasciatus) all tell the story of an evolutionary path unlike any other. Volcanic activity formed the archipelago more than four million years ago and continues to shape the land and the onyx-colored cliffs today. Though the volcanic nature of the islands stems the growth of many plants, the varying elevations and weather patterns have created numerousmini-ecosystems that range from deserts to cloud forests and wetlands.
"It's mind-boggling," said photographer Robert Katz, who visited the islands five years ago to capture the beauty and uniqueness of Galapagos wildlife. "Our novice naturalist Cesar, who is self-trained and lives on the island, pointed out plants and animals and knew about everything. Obviously, I've never seen any place like that on Earth."
The first people to set foot in the Galapagos were also tourists of a sort—scientists and adventurers—who arrived in the 1800s. With the increase in scientific exploration and the boom of the tourism industry,the population has exploded to more than 28,000. In a land famous for inspiring Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, the impact from those looking to catch a glimpse of one of the world's most anomalous places is beginning to take a toll on the ecosystem. Resources are stretched thin. Invasive species such as pigs,rats, cats, quinine, and even blackberries easily out-compete other plants and animals that, until the past one hundred years, had never lived with aggressive or predatory species. Organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, The Galapagos Conservancy and the Charles Darwin Foundation now recognize the role of human culture in the protection of the area and are working to support local conservation leaders and to give local residents a chance to learn about and connect with their unique environment.
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