Galápagos National Park is an ecological treasure trove, a biological hoard guarded fiercely by conservationists. Visitors to the islands must abide by the park’s rules, which include not taking anything from the wilderness—or leaving anything behind.
The park is prized for both its mind-boggling biodiversity and its historical significance, for it was on those desolate, craggy shores and in those primeval forests that a young Charles Darwin observed and collected the unique plants and animals that would inspire his theory of evolution. The archipelago, mused the naturalist in his journal, “seems to be a little world in itself.”
Darwin’s research there transformed the islands into an object of scientific and cultural fascination, as well as a bucket-list destination. In 1978, UNESCO honored the archipelago and its living treasures by naming it the first-ever World Heritage site. Ninety-seven percent of the islands’ area was designated a national park; the remaining 3 percent was set aside for human habitation. The parklands and their inhabitants are truly wild, offering no shelter, no Internet access, and no bathrooms.
Which raises the question: How do you poop in the Galápagos Islands? You’ve got a few options, none of them luxurious. According to naturalist guide Fabian Bucheli, if a park tourist has an urgent need to go, he or she will be told to hold it (island visits last a maximum of four hours), or directed back to the tour boat or toward one of the islands’ few inhabited areas. Leaving isn’t always possible, however, and Bucheli admitted that in some cases he and other guides will simply “dig a hole and cover the sample.”
Why is pooping there such a big no-no?
That moment when the crap hits the sand is actually where things get interesting. Human poop contains millions of unique bacteria, not to mention the remains of non-native plants and animals. Our waste takes more than a year to biodegrade, and in that time a single human “deposit” has the potential to shift the future of entire ecosystems.
“Whatever you eat, whatever is inside you, you introduce," says Chuck Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona who also answers to “Dr. Germ.” Our fecal bacteria, he says, are a force to be reckoned with. The human gut has been described as “the densest bacterial ecosystem known in nature.” Of all the bacterial warriors in our bellies, Dr. Gerba believes that three in particular could cause problems in the Galápagos: Campylobacter, which can infect birds; Salmonella, which can infect reptiles and amphibians; and E. coli, which can infect just about everything.
When a disease passes from a non-human animal to a human, it’s known as zoonosis. Some of the most dreaded diseases in human history—anthrax, cholera, plague, and HIV/AIDS, for example—result from zoonotic infections. The reverse situation, in which human beings transmit disease to non-human animals, is far less considered. The field of reverse zoonosis is a young one, according to Dr. Gerba. “Everybody’s always worried about wildlife infecting us,” he says. “They never think about it the other way around.”
Whether we’re worried about it or not, it’s already happening. A 2012 study discovered that some land and marine iguanas and the islands’ famed giant tortoises harbored antibiotic-resistant E. coli and Salmonella bacteria. The affected populations had only one thing in common: proximity to human settlements or tourist sites. Years of isolation have rendered the park’s flora and fauna vulnerable to any disease we bring in from the outside world.
There’s also the issue of plants. For thousands of years, the immobile plant kingdom has relied upon the legs and wings of animals for dissemination. Birds, bears, and humans eat the plant’s ripe fruit and poop out the indigestible seeds, carrying the plant’s genes farther than they could have gone alone. Could plant matter in human feces introduce entirely new plant species to the Galápagos? It’s “a distinct possibility,” says Stephen Walsh, a professor of geography and the director of UNC’s Center for Galápagos Studies. “What has kept the islands so unique all these years is their isolation. But they are isolated no more, and the human imprint is dramatic.”
So What Can Be Done?
Poop problems are not unique to the Galápagos. To protect high-traffic wildlands and prevent the spread of human diseases, some U.S. parks now require hikers and campers to “pack out” their own waste in plastic bags. (Needless to say, these new regulations have not been enthusiastically embraced by park regulars.) Other parks have set up authorized toilet sites, which are emptied by unfortunate staffers on a regular basis.
The toilet issue even has its own Lorax. Conservationist and activist Kathleen Meyer has devoted her life to exploring and protecting our planet, but she’s best known as the author of the international bestseller How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art. Meyers is a strong proponent of “packing it out,” whether that means using a portable commode, a double-bagging system, or her own “Shhh!-it Kit,” which is still in its prototype phase.
Meyer’s methods are not without their detractors. If an iguana can turn a beach into a bathroom, the skeptics want to know, then why can’t we? One word: airplanes. The crucial difference between our poop and an iguana’s, says Meyer, is range. Other animals have limited territories, but we humans can fly around the world, bringing all our little nasties with us. The same isolation that makes the Galápagos Islands a desirable vacation spot transforms them into a volatile hub of international microbe activity.
The bottom line (no pun intended): when we set foot on islands like the Galápagos, we set in motion a chain of events that we cannot control. Our bodies are portable universes, teeming with galaxies of germs and tiny, strange creatures that Darwin would have loved to see.