More than 700 naturalist guides accompany tourists who visit the islands. They enhance the naturalist experience for the visitors and play a major role in monitoring impacts throughout the archipelago.
Back in the 60s, just a dozen boats and hotels accommodated fewer than 2,000 tourists in the Galapagos a year . Fifty years later, in 2016, more than 215,000 tourists were lodged on 76 cruise ships and more than 300 land-based hotels .
Traveler numbers worldwide are growing faster than ever, and so does the desire to visit natural places that bring unique experiences to visitors. Making a selfie with a unique animal species or in a unique natural landscape to share on your timeline has become a “must” on social networks.
Galapagos is considered one of the capstones of nature travel in the world. But the uniqueness of the islands’ species and landscapes are not the only reason why most travelers recommend the Galapagos as one of the top nature destinations on the planet. The role of the highly trained naturalist guides accompanying visitors during their entire journey within the archipelago enhances the experience to a high level of travel that inspires and educates.
The team of naturalist guides in the Galapagos consists of a selected group of scientists, tourism practitioners, conservationists and local people with distinctive and broad knowledge about the natural history of the unique archipelago. They lead every group of tourists, sharing their knowledge and pointing out every unique aspect of the islands, from geologically unique sand grain colors to the magnificence of the giant tortoises.
Naturalist guides in the Galapagos work as bridges for visitors and park administrators. They connect visitors to a rich ecotourism experience, and they also connect the protected areas’ decision-makers to first-hand information collected from the field. A trained eye can locate potential or real threats to conservation, including: illegal activities on a specific site, introduced species, wounded animals, changes in species behavior, animals’ monitoring tags, tourists or tour operators violating national park laws, and any other alert that needs the attention of the National Park authorities.
In 2016 the Observatory of Tourism of the Galapagos, the Galapagos National Park Office and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), developed a web-based tool that allows naturalist guides to report in nearly real time all the potential or real threats that they find in the field. Although the naturalist guides have been making reports since 2008, not all this information was properly analyzed and delivered back to guides and decision-makers until the new platform launched in 2016. Information gathered is now processed by experts and then the relevant results are shown on the Observatory’s website, so guides can track their reports. The results are also shared on internal websites that show alerts to National Park decision-makers.
As Sofia Darquea, a naturalist guide of the Galapagos, said: “This is a very powerful tool for monitoring species, insfrastructure, conflicts of use and ilegal activities, but it is critical to generate a response from the National Park authorities in order to close the circle between monitoring and using that information for effective conservation of the Galapagos.” And this is the next step for Galapagos administrators.
The first six months of the tool being available generated more than 600 reports, with more than 200 critical observations; and so far 60 percentof those observations have influenced diverse actions in the administration office, from better planning of actions, eradication of introduced species, to changes and maintenance of visitors’ sites’ infrastructure, and alerts of illegal fishing inside the Marine Reserve.
Placing all the conservation and monitoring responsibility on National Park administration officials is not sustainable over time. Fortunately, there are thousands of naturalists, scientists, and other engaged people eager to help the administration with monitoring and management efforts.
Next time you take a selfie in the Galapagos with your naturalist guide, be sure to help her or him to be the eyes of conservation.
All Photos by: Dennis Ballesteros
Juan Carlos Izurieta is a tourism and conservation professional working as a researcher and practitioner in tourism and protected areas in South America and the Caribbean since 2005. In 2014 he started leading the Galapagos Observatory of Tourism. He is part of the technical staff behind the Naturalist Guides Monitoring Platform and other tools for monitoring tourism activities within the Galapagos National Park and Marine Reserve.
 Epler B. 2007. Turismo, Economía, crecimiento poblacional y conservación en Galápagos. Fundación Charles Darwin.
 Observatory of Tourism of Galapagos, 2016 (http://www.observatoriogalapagos.gob.ec/catastro)