Where Humans Are Invisible

This is the seventh in a series of articles exploring island societies to examine how issues affecting small isolated communities can help us understand the world as a whole.

The popular website IMDb, which rates movies and TV shows, lists Planet Earth IIas the highest rated TV show of all time. Perhaps the most popular scene from the highly acclaimed nature documentary series is “Iguana Chased by Snakes.”  The spectacular, if not disturbing, footage shows the fate of a newborn marine iguana attempting to run to safety while being chased by a swarm of racer snakes. The beautifully shot sequence is poetically narrated by a man with Shakespearean flair, while accompanied by dramatic musical score appropriate for a horror movie.  It is arguably one of the most thrilling and shocking scenes filmed for television.


The marine iguana and its nemesis, the racer snake, are endemic to the Galapagos Islands, meaning they are not found anywhere else on earth.  There are many other unique species of animals found on this archipelago, located on the equator about 600 miles from the coast of Ecuador.  Charles Darwin visited these islands in the 1830s and studied the many endemic species of mockingbirds and finches that call the Galapagos their home.  His observations were key in the development of his theory of natural selection, which then became the foundation for evolutionary biology.


Darwin noticed that the animals developed different traits depending on characteristics best suited for their specific environment.  He theorized that offspring with advantageous traits were more likely to survive and reproduce, passing on their characteristics to future generations. For example, the unique beak exhibited by a specific species of finches is best suited for the most prevalent food source found in that bird’s unique habitat.


The marine iguana and racer snake undoubtedly developed their adversarial relationship through natural selection.  Despite being nearly blind, the racer snake can sense the iguana’s movement and recognize it as lunch.  Meanwhile, the marine iguana, freshly hatched from its egg, instinctively knows that the snakes are up to no good, and runs for its life.  Without their inherent abilities acquired through natural selection, the racer snakes will go hungry, or iguanas will be systematically eaten alive.


Because the Galapagos Islands were largely free from any human settlement until the 20th century, the animals that are endemic to the islands evolved without human interaction. The result of this circumstance is evident on the “behind the scenes” footage from Plant Earth II.  To capture the drama between the marine iguana and racer snakes, the filmmakers did not use drones.  They did not hide behind a bush with a telephoto lens.  They did not have to hide.  In fact, the videographers were running next to the animals, being careful not to step on them.  These animals do not recognize humans as anything.  Not as a friend, enemy, or food.  Humans are no different than rocks or trees.  Since the animals evolved without human interaction, they did not develop the need to deal with people.  In other words, humans are invisible on the Galapagos Islands.


A government-certified naturalist guide must accompany each visitor to the Galapagos Islands.  These guides instruct each tourist to keep at least 6 feet from any animal.  This is not to protect the guest from wildlife, but vice versa.  Since humans are essentially invisible to the fur seals, giant tortoises, and many other species that thrive on these remote islands, the animals are not afraid or even aware of humans.  Therefore, visitors must be careful to not run into or step on them.


It’s easy to imagine the Galapagos as an isolated sanctuary for wildlife, unaffected by human interference. The facts disprove this notion. Although the animals may have evolved without human interaction, the Island’s species are intimately affected by human activity.  There are two airports in the Galapagos Islands welcoming about quarter million visitors annually.  To service the tourists, there are more than 25,000 people living on the Islands, with the population rising yearly.  In addition, there also many feral species of plants and animals unwittingly introduced to the Islands, threatening the native species.


In 2007, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) placed the Galapagos Islands on their List of World Heritage in Danger due to the threat from invasive species and uncontrolled tourism.  Since then, the Ecuadorian government, along with privately funded international organizations, enacted measures to address these issues, and UNESCO removed the Galapagos from their “danger” list in 2010.  It took three years to reverse the destructive course of these tiny islands. One has to wonder how many years it will take to reverse the damage humans are inflicting on the rest of the world.


Outside of extremely remote locales devoid of humans, animals have evolved to avoid humans. When animals are naturally selected to elude people, it can be assumed that people have harmed them in the past. Knowing that virtually every animal treat humans as pariahs or predators, people should realize their place on earth.  People are menaces.  They kill animals for food or sport.  And the human race has stepped up its insatiable desire for destruction.  To harm the animals that they cannot directly kill, humans have damaged the environment to affect all species, even those living in the most remote locations.  Although humans are invisible to some animals, their influence on wildlife is clearly visible.  No animal can hide from human activity.  Pollution and climate change will eventually get them all.