Read about his adventures on the Galápagos archipelago with creatures from another age: giant tortoises, albatross, a booby, a huge turtle and a shark. Where he discovers a remarkable state of harmony between man and nature.
More photographs on his website.
Tread softly among the iguanas
By Stanley Johnson in the Financial Times.
On The Galápagos:
If you measure the significance of a topic by how much media attention it receives, I would guess that last year climate change came close to ousting the Iraq war as the number one issue
It is only really since 1959 when the Galápagos was established as a national park and, subsequently, as a world heritage centre, that a proper framework has been created for safeguarding this paradise.
I didn’t hear anyone on the islands calling for the power and authority of the national park to be strengthened and expanded … without strong political backing at every level, I doubt whether the Galápagos miracle can long survive.
Here is a second article that featured in The Independent Magazine (Jan 6, 2006) about saving the addax in Niger.
Niger Wildlife: In search of the addax
Playboy hunters with helicopters and Kalashnikovs are driving the Sahel’s fragile population of wild animals to extinction. Stanley Johnson travelled to Niger to witness the devastation
the wildlife of the desert is in free-fall and the root cause is hunting. Uncontrolled illegal unregulated hunting
Just a few years back, we would have seen hundreds if not thousands of gazelle in this area west of the Termit massif and north of Tesker. That day, we glimpsed only a handful
Tread softly among the iguanas
If you measure the significance of a topic by how much media attention it receives, I would guess that last year climate change came close to ousting the Iraq war as the number one issue. And as the new year stretches ahead of us […]. I am sure that the future of the planet – in particular the seemingly unstoppable rise in greenhouse gas emissions – will dominate our press and television.
The event that truly triggered the rising wave of concern with global warming in this country was the publication in October of the Stern Report on Climate Change. Sir Nicholas Stern, a former World Bank chief economist, pointed out that climate change could shrink global economies by 20 per cent; world temperatures were likely to rise by 2°C by 2050, or sooner; up to 200m people could become refugees through flooding or drought.
Stern the name, stern the message.
Because I have spent most of my professional life working on environmental issues, the headline that really caught my eye from the report was the one which read: “A temperature rise of only 2°C would threaten up to 40 per cent of species with extinction.”
My thoughts turned immediately to that miraculous, iconic group of islands that I had been visiting while Mr Stern put the finishing touches to his document: the Galápagos archipelago, 600 miles into the Pacific off the coast of Ecuador. The extraordinary wildlife of these islands, I learned while I was there, had already proved vulnerable to the effects of El Niño, that sudden and dramatic climatic perturbation of the ocean-atmosphere system that is affecting the tropical Pacific with increasing frequency. What would happen if the force and direction of the ocean currents changed as a result of global warming or if they stopped flowing altogether? Would the marine and bird-life of the Galápagos survive if the Humboldt current ceased to deliver its vast load of nutrients?
How ironic that the place that has become so deeply associated in the public mind with the very notion of biodiversity could, as a result of man-made climatic change, turn into a biological desert.
As with most visitors to the Enchanted Islands – Las Islas Encantadas – my love affair with the Galápagos began as soon as I stepped off the aircraft on to the tarmac at Baltra Island. The Americans first built this airstrip during the second world war to protect the Panama Canal; now it can handle jets – you can fly there from Ecuador’s capital, Quito, in less than two hours. As we walked down to the little jetty to board the dinghy that would transfer us to our 16-berth three-masted schooner, we had to climb over half a dozen sea-lions that had hauled themselves out of the sea to sunbathe on the path. That was just the start and it got better every day.
So often, when you travel, you find yourself disappointed. The scenery, the wildlife, even the people don’t come up to your expectations. This is simply not true with the Galápagos.
The extraordinary thing is that, more than 170 years after Darwin’s visit, you can see with your own eyes exactly what the great scientist saw. All 13 species of Darwin’s finches are still found on the islands, each occupying their different evolutionary niche. The giant tortoises on the island of Santa Cruz still differ, as Darwin noted, from those on the island of Isabela.
Or take the remarkable geology of the archipelago, where volcanic hotspots erupt through the always-moving tectonic plate to produce the conveyor-belt effect, with the older islands moving east and eventually sinking beneath the waves while in the west new islands are constantly being created.
Even if you have seen television programmes on the Galápagos (for example BBC2’s excellent recent series), nothing prepares you for the reality.
Towards the end of my 10-day visit, I was walking with a guide on Espanola, one of the oldest islands of the archipelago. We were following a cliff-top path that wound its way between -nesting blue-footed boobies and Nazca boobies, past some rocky promontories, towards a headland where we could see scores of waved albatross, a species endemic to the Galápagos. Some of the albatross were nesting; some were in the air, still others were engaged in a strange courtship ritual involving much nodding of heads and stretching of vast wings.
I was so absorbed in the distant scene that I failed to notice the ground immediately ahead.
“Don’t step on the iguanas!” the guide called out as he saw me about to place my feet on a thick mat of red-black marine reptiles that had spread themselves across the path.
When you find yourself about to stumble over a marine iguana warming itself in the morning sun before it heads out to sea and a breakfast of seaweed, you have to pinch yourself and ask: “Can this be true?”
Then there were Darwin’s beloved giant tortoises. We observed them on Santa Cruz Island on a wet and windy morning. Several hundred of them live in a vast forest reserve, where they are difficult to see. Happily, a score or more had emerged from the trees to graze on a nearby farmer’s field, so we were able to watch them for an hour.
“Approach them from behind,” the guide instructed. “That way you won’t upset them.”
Once, when I came too close, a tortoise gave a low whooshing hiss, like lift doors closing, but on the whole they seemed quite content to ignore us.
Another image I have is of the blue-footed booby diving for food. When you are snorkelling, you will often hear a loud smack as a booby hits the water, beak outstretched, air-bags extended, at 40mph.
Sometimes the bird splashes down just inches away from you and you wonder whether you are about to become a freak accident statistic: “Snorkeller speared by diving booby!”
Seconds later, you might see the bird rise into the air with a fish in its bill. Apparently, diving birds such as boobies can even go blind in the end, as a result of the effect of their repeated high-speed collisions with the surface of the ocean. This is indeed the survival of the fittest.
Perhaps my most magical memory was when I peered down through my snorkel mask one day and in the blue depths below saw a huge turtle passing almost directly beneath me. It was a Pacific Green Turtle, doing a gentle breaststroke, with front and rear flippers moving in unison. I felt humbled in so many ways. Here was an animal that has existed since the age of the dinosaurs, certainly long before human beings made their appearance on the earth. And it is still around today.
One morning, when we were standing on deck, we had a grandstand view of turtles mating about 50 yards off the starboard bow. What surprised me, in the stillness of near-dawn, was the noise the turtles made – a strange bellowing sound. Other turtles swam around and even joined in the fun, offering – as far as one could tell – support and encouragement.
I had the same kind of thrill when seeing a shark at close quarters. I was snorkelling around the rim of a submerged volcano off Floreanna Island when a five-foot white-tipped reef shark swam right in front of my face. Like the turtle, it was a creature from another age.
Visitors to the Galápagos never fail to comment on the placidity, the lack of fear of human beings, shown by the wildlife there. Darwin virtually plucked his finches off the boughs of trees. The same lack of alarm at human presence goes for other birdlife. If you were so minded, and if your guide wasn’t vigilant, you could probably walk right up to a waved albatross on its nest and it wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Iguanas, both the land and the marine variety, seem totally unperturbed by man’s close scrutiny.
This state of harmony between man and nature didn’t always exist. Vast depredations of Galápagos wildlife occurred in previous centuries. Tortoises were captured in their thousands by passing ships. The surrounding oceans were virtually emptied of whales. It is only really since 1959 when the Galápagos was established as a national park and, subsequently, as a world heritage centre, that a proper framework has been created for safeguarding this paradise.
Can the good times last? Or will we once again see trouble in paradise? My own view is that this is a critical time for the future of the islands. The Galápagos National Park authorities, with the support of the Charles Darwin Foundation based in Santa Cruz, seem at the moment to have the situation under control.
One important initiative to remove feral goats from the islands – which had been chomping their way through the islands’ vegetation and depriving the tortoises of their food source – has been spectacularly successful. A team of New Zealand sharpshooters working with park wardens from helicopters and using “Judas” goats has succeeded in eliminating 95 per cent of the invaders. Other threats, such as the harvesting of sea-cucumbers for the Asian market, seem to have been more than adequately dealt with.
But there is one menace that, in the short term, looms larger than any other, including climate change, and that is an uncontrolled expansion of tourism. The Galápagos is the victim of its own fame, its own extraordinary and unique qualities. Already some 500 passenger cruise ships are offering the Galápagos as a destination of choice in their 2008 brochures.
Nor is the problem confined to people on boats. It might not yet be a back-packer’s dream but if you walk down Puerto Ayora’s main street, with its sales-boutiques offering “Galápagos Adventure Tours”, you can see the potential for disaster. An explosion of short-stay visitors, including on one-day-trips and two- or three-day mini-trips, might overwhelm the capacity of the authorities to manage and regulate.
Even if the authorities had the knowledge and the means to control mass-tourism, will they have the political will to do so?
In the Galápagos, as everywhere else, money talks. In recent years the islands have seen a high rate of immigration from the mainland and as many as 30,000 people now live there. Most of these are involved in the tourist industry. Pressures to increase the number of tourists permitted to visit the islands (about 120,000) are already being felt and many fear they will become irresistible.
We visited the Galápagos during the final throes of the Ecuadorian national election campaign. We were in the Santa Cruz capital, Puerto Ayora, for the eve-of-poll rallies. Pick-up trucks, garlanded with slogans, hooted up and down the streets and boats sounded their horns in the marina. I saw many signs calling, among other things, for jobs, better sewerage, and support for local fishermen. I didn’t hear anyone on the islands calling for the power and authority of the national park to be strengthened and expanded. Or, if they did, I missed it. Yet, without strong political backing at every level, I doubt whether the Galápagos miracle can long survive.
What is increasingly clear, of course, in the light of the publication of the Stern Report, as well as other research, is that the fight to save the Galápagos has to be waged globally – with an international treaty to reduce CO2 emissions going far beyond the Kyoto Protocol – as well as locally.
That wider battle, I hope we may now safely say, is at last firmly engaged in this country in the mind of both public and politicians. Whether the necessary actions will actually be taken is another story. Let’s hope the giant tortoises of the Galápagos are still around, 100 years or more from now, to give their verdict.
Stanley Johnson travelled with leading nature travel specialists, DiscoveryInitiatives. (Tel 01285 643333 http://www.discoveryinitiatives.com/)
All cruises include a contribution to the Charles Darwin Foundation and aclimate care levy to offset carbon emissions. The Charles Darwin Foundation is at www.darwinfoundation.org. Friends of the Galápagos are at www.gct.org
Niger Wildlife: In search of the addax
Tesker is the last village of any size in eastern Niger – that vast arid land-locked country in the heart of Africa – before the Sahel turns into the Sahara. With our small convoy of vehicles we had stopped at the local gendarmerie to pay our respects and to fill up with water. We also had a chance to pin down some of the facts about the recent massacre of Niger’s wildlife.
Rumours of the massacre of had been flying around for weeks. They had reached Niger’s capital, Niamey, 600 miles to the west, before filtering out into the wider world. There were various versions of the story but the gist of it was that Seif Al Islam, a son of Libya’s President Gaddafi, had – it was claimed – recently flown into the Niger desert on a hunting expedition. The plane had landed at a desert airstrip. There had been a helicopter, too, and around 70 4×4 vehicles. They had brought in bowsers with fuel and water and the party was, of course, armed to the teeth with Kalashnikovs.
Sometimes they hunted by day, setting their falcons on the great bustards who still roamed the plains or blazing away with their guns. Sometimes, they went out at night, using the headlights of their vehicles to immobilise the wildlife – desert antelopes or Barbary sheep from the Termit Massif.
What was worse, so the rumours went, this high-level Libyan visitation wasn’t just a one-off. The Libyans had been seen in the area several times in recent months. They had even, it seemed, built a hunting lodge in the middle of the desert, a permanent structure whose presence indicated that they would return again and again as long as there was wildlife left to kill.
So as the gendarmes checked our passports and wrote down the details in a fly-blown ledger, we asked some gently probing questions.
Had any of them actually seen the Libyan hunting parties in operation? No, it didn’t seem that they had, though they had definitely observed the massive convoys of vehicles passing through the village. Had they actually seen the Gaddafi hunting lodge? No, but they saw no reason why we should not go and look for it.
Piero Ravá, a 58-year-old Italian who has been leading expeditions into the desert for the past 30 years and was in charge of our trip, was up for it.
“Vous voulez voir la maison du Gaddafi? On y va!”
Ravá is an energetic, ebullient fellow. He is not a man to be ground down by adversity. Two or three years back he was driving his Range Rover through the Niger desert when the vehicle was blown up by a landmine, a relic of an earlier internecine conflict. His passengers were all killed, but Ravá miraculously survived, though with several broken ribs. Within weeks, he was back behind the steering wheel, leading as always from the front.
So we left Tesker, heading almost due north into the desert. John Newby, director of the Sahara Conservation Fund and a man who has spent a life-time trying to save the fauna of the Sahara, rode in the lead vehicle with Ravá, keeping a close eye on the GPS instrument. With so many years of desert experience between them, Ravá and Newby could probably navigate in the desert even without the GPS data, but they would be the first to admit that the new technology has made life easier.
Between them, Ravá and Newby had a pretty good idea of the route to take. About two hours after leaving Tesker, our convoy breasted a high wide sand-dune to look down into a saucer-shaped valley below.
Half a mile away we saw a most extraordinary sight. A house, complete with doors, windows and sloping shingled roof, had been built in the middle of the desert. Thirty yards from the front door, another pillared and roofed construction provided an outdoor dining-room. Large empty packing cases, some with Libyan addresses stamped on them, were strewn around.
It wasn’t so much the size of the place that amazed us. In terms of square footage, the hunting lodge was not specially large. What amazed us was that it was there at all.
Newby scouted around and came back with the desiccated skins of half-a-dozen Dorcas gazelles. Roseline Beudels and Arnaud Greth, both representing the United Nations’ Convention for Migratory Species (CMS), cast further afield and discovered a rubbish pit where other Dorcas gazelle relics – skulls and skin – had been thrown. There were also body parts from several bustards.
We had lunch in the Gaddafi gazebo. By then, two Toubou had arrived on horseback. They were obviously paid to guard the villa and they kept a watchful eye on us. They needn’t have bothered. We were not in a boisterous mood.
“Basically,” said Newby, munching gloomily on a bean salad which Ravá’s loyal team of Tuaregs had manufactured seemingly out of nowhere, “the wildlife of the desert is in free-fall and the root cause is hunting. Uncontrolled illegal unregulated hunting. With the 4x4s you can go virtually anywhere in the desert. You’ve got fuel tanks which hold 200 litres or more. You bring your own water, so that’s not a limiting factor. In fact, the only limiting factor is how much wildlife can a man shoot before his holiday is up.”
Just a few years back, we would have seen hundreds if not thousands of gazelle in this area west of the Termit massif and north of Tesker. That day, we glimpsed only a handful. And it was clear that those which still survived lived in mortal terror. The moment they saw our vehicle, even half a mile away, they galloped off in a panic showing us a clean pair of heels.
If the spiralling excesses of hunting and the attendant massacres of Sahelo-Saharan wildlife shocked most of the members of our party, they also served to confirm the determination of the CMS team to do something about it.
I should explain that the CMS mission to the eastern deserts of Niger had been planned well before the rumours of the Libyan massacres arrived in Europe. When I first met Roseline Beudels in Paris in September 2006, she told me why the CMS had decided to make Niger one of its priority targets.
Environmentalists over the past decade or so have, she explained, tended to concentrate on what they term “biodiversity hotspots”, such as tropical rain-forests with their extraordinary concentrations of fauna and flora. But the mandate of the CMS was to look after endangered migratory species wherever they were to be found, not just in the biological hotspots. And desert biodiversity, although less abundant in terms of number of species, is unique and most remarkable in terms of adaptation to extreme conditions.
Beudels told me about the CMS’s project to prevent the Sahelo-Saharan antelopes from sliding into extinction. Six species altogether were covered by the CMS strategy: the scimitar-horned oryx, the addax, the slender-horned gazelle, Cuvier’s gazelle, the Dama gazelle and the Dorcas gazelle. The status of all these species, which had once been widespread throughout Saharan Africa, was now threatened or vulnerable. The scimitar-horned oryx had disappeared from the wild. The CMS was closely involved in a project to reintroduce the addax in the wild in Tunisia, building on a captive herd which already existed in that country. As far as protecting the addax in situ was concerned, Niger was a key country since it was thought to contain the last viable population of wild addaxes. Between 100 and 200 animals had in recent years been observed in the area around the Termit Massif and in the contiguous great desert erg known as Tin Toumma.
“The CMS,” Beudels told me, “is determined to try to help Niger save the last wild addaxes. We want to set up a protected area in around the Termit Massif and in Tin Toumma.”
Six weeks later, I joined the CMS team in Niamey, Niger’s dusty capital. Niger is one of the world’s poorest countries. Each year the United Nations publishes a table called the The Human Development Index. This is a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living for countries worldwide. Norway is top of the list. Niger – in 177th place – is at the very bottom, the lowest of the low.
It may at first sight seem perverse, in a country where human beings confront starvation on a daily basis, to talk about Niger’s wildlife, but in reality protecting Niger’s unique biological heritage is probably just as important in terms of basic socio-economic development as many of the other projects currently being undertaken.
The evening of my arrival in Niamey, Beudels, Greth and I met Ali Harouna, the Director of Niger’s Department for the Protection of Wildlife. Harouna kindly drove out to see us at our hotel, outside the city centre.
While I fended off the mosquitoes, Harouna spoke of the need to involve the local people of the proposals to make Termit-Tin Toumma a protected area were the project to stand any chance of success.
“The process of consultation may take a long time. In the end we will need a Presidential decree.” He pointed out that, if you added a Termit-Tin Toumma Protected area to the existing protected areas in Niger, then almost 10 per cent of the country would be covered.
The key thing, of course, was not just to create another “paper park”, but to have a system of protection that really worked on the ground.
The CMS team was able to confirm that the EU was likely to donate a substantial grant – more than €1.5m – to the Termit-Tin Toumma project, which was in addition to substantial funds already provided by the French Government’s Global Environment Facility.
Harouna recognised that this was very good news. With the Scimitar-horned Oryx already extinct in the wild, saving the last viable population of addaxes would be a tremendous coup for Niger.
The following Monday, in Zinder, a dusty town near the border with Chad which we reached after a 600-mile drive through the Sahel, the CMS team and the Niger Environment Ministry together inaugurated the Atelier de Lancement du Projet Antilopes Sahelo Sahariennes. Tribal chiefs and group leaders had already spent days travelling into town from the outlying areas. Now they had a chance to hear what the CMS proposed and to make their own comments.
For two days I sat at the back, looking over rows of turbanned heads, as one presentation followed another. The Tuaregs, the Toubou, the Hausa – all had their point of view and didn’t hesitate to put it across. With prayer breaks as well as meal breaks to be taken, the whole event had a rather stately rhythm to it but, by the end, it looked as though the main objective had been secured.
Of course, the details still had to be sorted out: how big would the protected area be, how would a ban on hunting actually be enforced, how did you square Niger’s evident determination to have a world-class protected area in Termit-Tin Toumma with the bizarre fact that some hunting concessions were still being granted, could there be teams of “eco-guards”, what benefits would accrue to the local population? All these were important issues, but it seemed that at least the basic principles had been agreed.
I am sure that the fact that relatively large sums of money are going to be available to the project made a difference in the minds of the audience, but I believe there is more to it than that. I remember listening one morning to one of the tribal chiefs and being struck by the passion with which he spoke. He talked about how as a child he had grown up with wildlife. He had been to a nomad school and the gazelles would sometimes wander right up to the open-air class-room in the desert.
“La faune – c’est notre patrimoine!” he exclaimed. The applause from the other tribal leaders gathered there seemed both heartfelt and spontaneous.
After the workshop was over we left Zinder for Tesker and the visit to the “maison du Gaddafi” I have already described. We then spent two days exploring the Termit Massif.
The Termit Massif is a most unusual geographical and biological feature. Extending almost 80 miles north to south and in parts more than eight miles wide, the rocky cliffs seem to rise hundreds of feet almost vertically from the desert floor. Here, if you are lucky, you will see Barbary sheep moving from crag to crag, desert tortoises, desert foxes and Dorcas gazelles. If you are very lucky, you might see a leopard or a Dama gazelle.
Of course, I was hoping desperately to see the rarest item of all, the addax, even if that meant driving on east from Termit into the vast Tin Toumma desert erg. That addaxes had been seen there in the past was not in doubt but the last sightings had been more than a year ago.
On our last evening at the Massif, we pored over the satellite maps. Greth remembered precisely where he had seen addaxes – nine altogether – three years earlier. He placed a finger on the chart. Newby measured off the distance.
“Fifty kilometres more or less due east,” Newby said. “Let’s go for it!”
Piero Ravá is never one to duck a challenge.
There is nothing he likes more than heading off into the unknown.
Next day our convoy moved on into the heat of the desert. We drove for several hours that day along a transect, our vehicles rising and falling with the sand-dunes. After 50km, we turned 90 degrees south for 10km, before returning on a track parallel to our original one.
Newby read out the coordinates from the GPS. “12 degrees 12 minutes east, 16 degrees 12 minutes north.” I’d like to be able to record that at precisely that moment we had our first sighting of a herd of addaxes, munching away on the unforgiving though still somehow nutritious desert grasses. But we had no such luck. The truth is that we were looking for a handful of animals in an area the size of Switzerland and it would have been almost a miracle if we had located them in such a short space of time.
The temperature in the desert dropped to 8C that night and I was grateful for the shelter of my one-man tent. I lay with the flap open looking up at the stars.
Did it matter, I wondered, that we hadn’t actually seen an addax? Surely not. It was enough to know that somewhere in that vast desert, they are still there. And if the CMS project for a Termit-Tin Toumma Protected Area comes to fruition, as I have every reason to hope it will, there is a chance that the world’s last remaining population of wild addax will not only survive but prosper well into the future.
This will be good for the addax. And it will be a triumph for Niger as well.
The Convention on Migratory Species, www.cms.int; the Sahelo-Saharan Antelopes project, www.naturalsciences.be; the Sahara Conservation Fund, www.saharaconservation.org; and the indomitable desert explorer, Piero Ravá, can be found at www.spazidavventura.com