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ENVIRONMENT REPORT – July 26, 2002: Galapagos Oil Spill - 2002-07-22

This is the VOA Special English Environment Report.

Scientists say that as many as fifteen-thousand marine iguanas died on one of the Galapagos Islands after an oil spill last year. The scientists are not exactly sure what killed the creatures. Yet they suspect the oil spill was to blame.

Marine iguanas are found only in the Galapagos Islands. They are the only lizards that live in the sea. They are found along coastal rocks. They dive underwater to search for plants to eat.

The Galapagos Islands are in the Pacific Ocean, about nine-hundred kilometers west of Ecuador. They are famous for the unusual plants and animals that live there. That is because the plants and animals developed differently from those on the nearest continent, South America.

An Ecuadoran oil transport ship hit the coast of San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos in January, two-thousand-one. Hundreds of thousands of liters of oil spilled into the sea. Only a few creatures died immediately after the shipwreck. The weather and ocean currents broke up most of the oil spill.

However, a new report says the spill had a far greater effect. Martin Wikelski is an ecologist at Princeton University in the American state of New Jersey. He and his team have studied Galapagos marine iguanas since nineteen-eighty-seven. Their latest findings were reported in Nature magazine.

The scientists estimate that the iguana population on one island, Santa Fe, dropped sharply during the eleven months after the oil spill. They say the number of marine iguanas fell from twenty-five-thousand to ten-thousand. The scientists found that the oil spill did not seem to harm other areas. They found no change in the death rate of marine iguanas on the island of Genovesa.

Mister Wikelski is still trying to find out why the marine iguanas on Santa Fe Island died. He suspects the creatures swallowed oil and it killed bacteria in their stomachs. He thinks the bacteria help marine iguanas break down the plants they eat. As a result, the iguanas that lacked the bacteria may have starved to death.

Mister Wikelski says even small amounts of pollution can have severe effects on wild animals. He and officials of the Galapagos National Park are taking legal action against Ecuador’s state oil company, which owned the ship.

This VOA Special English Environment Report was written by George Grow.