Ecuador: Setting a  World Heritage Ablaze – the 1994 Fire in the Galápagos (IFFN No. 13 – July 1995)


Setting a World Heritage Ablaze –
the 1994 Fire in the Galápagos

(IFFN No. 13 – July 1995, p. 8-11)      

What comes more natural to a volcano than destruction? Well, the fire on the slope of one of Isabela islands’ volcanoes in the Galápagos National Park during spring 1994 was not a natural event. It was human-caused and it reflects the deep turmoil that currently affects this world heritage archipelago.

When the fire was first detected on 11 April 1994, the potential threat to the endemic tortoise populations made world news. Ecuador, to which the islands legally belong, declared a state of emergency and asked for international assistance. However, even before the fire started, several dozen tortoises had been killed by locals (probably fishermen), often without using their meat as food, reaching a total death toll of 81 in 1994. Despite the international public’s perception, the fire never even came close to the threatened tortoise populations.

I will argue that both the killing of the tortoises and the arson were used as political threats against conservationists, and that both are linked to the exploitation of the marine national park.

Facts on Fire

Between 3500 and 5500 ha of national park land were affected by the 1994 fire, the fourth wild fire on Isabela island this century (Fig.1). This fire was small in comparison with the 1985 fire, which had affected an area of approximately 20,000 ha in the same locality. All areas burnt in 1994 had already been burnt in 1985 (Fig.2). The fire was mainly nurtured by Guayaba trees and dried ferns. The ferns formed a dense cape of inflammables which helped spread the fire. Wind, mostly from southerly directions, pushed the fire spread rapidly, sometimes up to 3 kilometers per hour. Furthermore, burning Guayaba leaves were carried off by the wind for distances of up to half a kilometre, where they sometimes started secondary fires.

The affected area was situated approximately 6 km to the southwest of volcano Sierra Negra in the highlands of the island and consisted of a slightly inclined surface. The slope of the terrain was usually less than 15%. Because the entire archipelago is of volcanic origin, the lava surfaces are highly rugged and underground tunnels abound. This makes all kind of movements and work extremely difficult.

Being situated near the equator (at less than 1° S), the effective temperature often exceeds 50° C, implying a shaded daytime air temperature of 30 to 38° C. The climate in the Galápagos is characterized by two seasons, the cold or garua season from June to December and the warm and sometimes wet season from January to May. During the garua season a constant slight drizzle prevails, whereas during the warm season (as in April) there are mostly clear skies with occasional cumulonimbus clouds and rain. The humidity during the warm season, when the fire burnt, fluctuated between 65 and 85%.

Fire activity:
The flames usually reached a height of about half a metre, but with 5 to 10 knots wind speeds could increase to about one and a half metres. The fire also continued below ground and in cracks, where vegetation had accumulated. This made rapid efforts to extinguish the fire impossible, thus one could only hope for the rains of the warm season or the drizzle of the garua season to come. In the course of the day, fire activity fluctuated: below a humidity of 70 %, in the morning before about 11 a.m. and the evening after about 5 p.m., fire activity decreased. Around midday, humidity was reduced and the fire increased again. Due to the rugged topography and dense vegetation the fire burnt for a period of about 9 weeks. The last fires were extinguished by 7 June, after the cold season had started.

Fire fighting:
More than 100 fire fighters from 7 institutions worked on the spot (the Galápagos National Park Service, the National Institute of Galápagos, the Ecuadorian Forestry Institute of Natural Areas and Wildlife, the Municipality of Isabela, the Ecuadorian army, the Charles Darwin Research Station and the Civil Defence). Two helicopters supported the fire fighters. Three to six tractors were used to construct a total of about 20 km of fire breaks in two months. The heavy equipment did better than manual work as the latter was extremely exhausting and at times ineffective due to the rapid progress of the fire. Furthermore, hand tools like backpack pumps were largely unavailable in the Galápagos; later the Canadian government (through the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, Winnipeg, Manitoba) provided tools.

A major problem turned out to be logistics. Supplies could only be brought in from the continent by air to Baltra or San Cristóbal island, where the two airports of the archipelago are located which are suited for large planes (a new airstrip will soon be finished in Puerto Villamil, Isabela). Supplies by cargo vessels were brought to Puerto Villamil directly either from the continent or from the two major islands of Santa Cruz or San Cristóbal. However, unloading was sometimes very difficult in the small natural harbour of Puerto Villamil due to the heavy swell.

All material had to be transported to the fire fighters from the small town of Puerto Villamil located at the southeastern coast of Isabela island. There are no other villages on Isabela, which is home to about a thousand people. The distance from Puerto Villamil to the fire was about 40 to 50 km on land or 20 km by air. On several occasions both fuel and water became scarce for the fire fighters, causing the machinery to halt. Similarly, communications between fire fighter camps were difficult because fuel to run generators for the recharging of radio batteries was scarce. Nevertheless, the entire operation turned out to be well coordinated between the two principal agencies, the INEFAN (Ecuadorian Forestry Institute of Natural Areas and Wildlife) and the army. The local heads of both institutions handled the situation with caution and circumspection. Despite the prolonged period of burning and the extent of the destruction, the local population of Isabela, living far from the fire, generally showed little interest in the fire fighting operation or the fire itself.

Ecological effects:
The vegetation was not completely destroyed by the fire; patches of vegetation remained to create a mosaic of burnt and intact areas. After four months, sprouts of ferns and other plants started to appear in the burnt areas. It is likely that the burnt area will be covered with lush vegetation within half a decade or so, as judged from the aftermath of the 1985 fire, when there was little sign of destruction four years after the fire. There was never a threat to the tortoise populations, not even the one of Cerro Paloma, which was closest to the fire and numbers approximately 30 individuals. Ten tortoises were, however, moved by helicopter or on the backs of donkeys to an enclosure close to Puerto Villamil to protect them from slaughter.

Political aspects:
As already stated, there was never a real threat to any of the tortoise populations from the fire. The real threat to the tortoises originated from killing, as 81 tortoises were slaughtered in Isabela during 1994. Previously tortoises had sometimes been killed for meat; this was not the case in 1994. This demonstrated both the inability to protect wildlife without the collaboration of local fishermen and the determination of locals to break national park legal rules.

In searching for explanations for the killing and the forest fire, one first has to look into the history of immigration into the Galápagos. Many people, including fishermen and peasants, left continental Ecuador during the last decade to earn a better living in the “Enchanted Islands”. Most of these people had no relation to the conservation of natural areas and behaved accordingly. Thus animals were killed thoughtlessly and fires probably started the same way. Recently, however, both ways of destruction have also been used as threats in political debates.

Because groupers and lobsters had both been overfished for years and had became scarce, fishermen searched for a new source of revenue. The exploitation of sea-cucumbers, although previously prohibited, turned out to be a gold mine. In addition to “local” fishermen from the Galápagos, hundreds of fishermen from the continent rushed to the archipelago to get their share. When the Ecuadorian government, through the Galápagos National Park Service (GNPS), tried to stop the illegal exploitation inside the marine national park, both the GNPS and the Charles-Darwin Research Station (CDRS) were threatened and taken hostage for several days (in the first week of 1995). Proposed threats included the introduction of cats and dogs to untouched islands, the killing of “Lonely George” – the last tortoise of its species -, the killing of tortoises on other islands and the burning of entire islands such as Santa Fe or the Plazas.

Thus the destruction caused by the fire and the slaughter of tortoises were evidently used to threaten the authorities whose job is to protect the national park. A fire like the one in 1994 on Isabela island efficiently tied up resources and personnel necessary to control the national park and also distracted attention from the massive exploitation of the marine national park. If the “gold-rush” mentality of destructive exploitation really spreads in the Galápagos world heritage, then this is the end to one of the worlds most famous and most fabulous laboratories of evolution.


Márquez C., J. Gordillo, A. Tupiza. 1995. The fire of 1994 and herpetofauna of southern Isabela. Noticias de Galapagos, 54, 8-10.


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    Fig.1. Map of the Galápagos showing the major central islands of the archipelago. The small map in the right upper corner shows the location of the archipelago in the Pacific ocean, ca. 1000 km in the west of Ecuador, South America. The 1994 fire burnt on Isabela, the largest island of the archipelago. Only the south-eastern areas of Isabela island are settled by approximately 1000 people.


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    Fig.2. Detailed map of southern Isabela island showing the areas burnt in 1985 and 1994,
    the surface structure and the major village Puerto Villamil.



From: Martin Wikelski

Max-Planck Institut für Verhaltensphysiologie
Abteilung Wickler
D-82319 Seewiesen

Country Notes


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