Fulbright Scholar exploring conservation and communities in the Galapagos

February 03, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As a microcosm of the challenges faced across the planet, the Galapagos Islands have long provided lessons about natural history and the evolution of species unique to the area. Carter Hunt, Penn State associate professor of recreation, park, and tourism management and anthropology, now has the unique opportunity to bring a social lens to the study of rapidly growing human impact in the islands.

The Galapagos Islands, a group of volcanic islands off the coast of Ecuador, and their unique ecosystems experience many of the social and environmental disturbances that are occurring on a global scale. In some ways, the relatively simplified island settings allow research to translate more directly into solutions that can affect change.

Hunt’s widely recognized research

The National Science Foundation Cultural Anthropology Program recently awarded a grant to Hunt to extend the work he began as a Fulbright Scholar. This next phase of research will assess how cultural worldviews of those who migrated to the islands are shaping the human relationship to the environment in an area with no original, native population.

Hunt’s current research began as the recipient of a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Award in 2019. His host institution is the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), which operates the islands’ longest-standing research station on the island of Santa Cruz.

aerial view of Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz island

Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz is home to the Galapagos National Park headquarters and the Charles Darwin Foundation Research Station.

IMAGE: Carter Hunt

The Fulbright Program is the U.S. government’s flagship international educational exchange program and is designed to build lasting connections between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.

With the Fulbright Scholar Award, Hunt redirected his ongoing research that seeks to understand how conservation-based tourism affects people who live in and near protected areas. His initial Fulbright work in 2019 identified a need for further anthropological understanding of the diverse human population in the islands, where over 35,000 people now reside.

People and the Galapagos Islands

With archival resources on the human history of Galapagos gathered from the CDF, Hunt proposed a new study, “Migrant worldviews and emergent ecological knowledge,” which was funded by the NSF in 2020. This project will explore the ongoing cultural convergence underway in the islands, which were recognized as the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Despite having no native population, the Galapagos has undergone rapid human population growth since about 1950. This migration to the islands has brought different ways of thinking about conservation and human impact on the sensitive local environments.

“We look at tourism as sometimes part of the problem and sometimes part of the solution,” said Hunt. “Tourism mixes with, and sometimes clashes with, other livelihood strategies. It can provide valuable economic support for people who live in remote, biodiverse regions, and yet it can also be the primary source of exploitation in such areas.”

“The value we can provide as environmental anthropologists is through helping understand the history, diverse worldviews, and value systems present in the human population, as these are key to understanding what might be possible in locally driven solutions to conservation and development challenges.”

Hunt’s path to the islands

Inspired by a childhood fascination for wildlife and biodiversity, Hunt started working in the Galapagos as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University in 2012. That first research trip to the islands explored the conservation psychology of travel — whether nature-based experiences, like week-long boat tours of the Galapagos Islands, affect people’s perception of and support for environmental conservation efforts.

After returning as a Fulbright Scholar in 2019, Hunt served as a faculty host of a Penn State alumni tour of the islands.

Group of Penn State alumni at the Charles Darwin Foundation Research Station, Galapagos Islands

Carter Hunt led a Penn State alumni tour of the Galapagos Islands in 2019, including a stop at the Charles Darwin Foundation Research Station.

IMAGE: Carter Hunt

“I grew up in rural areas and have always been a naturalist interested in the conservation of wildlife, in particular,” he said. “The Galapagos have become one of the first locations people think of when considering the role that tourism can play in the conservation of our most treasured natural areas.”

Protecting unique areas

Like the rest of the world, the Galapagos is now facing intense challenges related to climate change, ocean acidification, freshwater scarcity, the introduction of invasive species, and increased human activities. Care is needed in the future management of tourism so that it remains a tool for, rather than a threat to, conservation efforts.

Providing the results of rigorous analysis to local partners will help them develop solutions to the problems being faced in the Galapagos, Hunt said. Such work may also provide insights into the ways that cultural worldviews influence peoples’ approach to conservation and development challenges across our increasingly mobile planet.

Assessing the pandemic’s impact

The timing of Hunt’s work will also provide the opportunity to assess how tourism-dependent island areas weather and emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Just as natural disturbances can play a key role in evolutionary processes, the pandemic may likewise influence the process of cultural integration and even speed up the integration of more ecologically situated Galapagueño culture,” Hunt said.

Galapagos tortoise

The Galapagos Islands is home to many unique species and environments, including the Galapagos tortoise (pictured), the blue-footed booby and the marine iguana.

IMAGE: Carter Hunt

While the development of student learning experiences in the Galapagos Islands may be on pause for now, Hunt’s relationship with the CDF was further bolstered by a letter of intent in January 2020 to continue exploring inter-institutional educational and research opportunities in the future. The letter of intent was signed by then CDF Executive Director Arturo Izurieta, Associate Vice Provost Rob Crane from Penn State’s Office of Global Programs, and Dean Craig Newschaffer from the College of Health and Human Development.

“I am simultaneously humbled and ecstatic about the opportunity to work in the Galapagos alongside the foundation’s outstanding researchers as a Fulbright Scholar and NSF-supported researcher,” said Hunt. “I hold these islands and the CDF’s history and current staff in high regard. The CDF and other government entities like the Galapagos National Park have worked incredibly hard to safeguard the unique ecosystems and growing human population in the face of continuous changes in recent years.”

Hunt was one of over 800 U.S. citizens who taught, conducted research, and/or provided expertise abroad for the 2019-20 academic year through the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program. Recipients of Fulbright awards are selected on the basis of academic and professional achievement, as well as record of service and demonstrated leadership in their respective fields. Learn more about the Fulbright Program at this link.

Last Updated February 09, 2021