The president of Ecuador, Rafeal Correa, declared yesterday (June 22, 2007) that the Galapagos are at high risk and should be considered a national conservation priority. He claims that the islands are suffering an environmental crisis and is seeking restrictions on tourism. He has also asked that the habitat be added to UNESCO’s Endangered List – a request which will be considered at a week-long meeting of the UN agency’s World Heritage Committee being held in New Zealand beginning this Saturday.
The Galapagos lie in the Pacific Ocean some 600 miles west of Ecuador at the confluence of several ocean currents and are comprised of some 19 islands. The isolation of these striking volcanic isles has produced one of the highest concentrations of endemic species in the world, and the archipelago is considered “a natural museum of geological, ecological and evolutionary processes”. The seismic and volcanic activities that formed the islands are still going on today.
The habitat’s unusual animals, including the land iguana and giant tortoises, helped to inspire Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. (He visited the islands in 1835.) 30% of the marine life in the surrounding seas are endemic, as are roughly 1/3 of the island’s vascular land plants, all of the reptiles with the exception of two species of marine turtle, and almost half of its bird species. Among its unique species is the marine iguana, Amblyrhynchus cristatus – the only sea-going iguana in the world.
As a place of “outstanding universal value”, the Galapagos Islands were added to UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) list of Protected Areas and World Heritage Sites in 1978 and designated as a Biosphere Reserve in 1984.
This extraordinary archipelago of unrivaled beauty is an “almost pristine” treasure trove of biodiversity, but is being threatened today by large-scale tourism and unsustainable fishing practices by mainland fishermen whose activities are financed by foreign companies. Visitation by tourists has increased three-fold in the past 15 years with an annual growth rate of about 14% for the tourism economy. The consequences of this growth include threats to endemic species by introduction of non-native invasive species, pollution, over-harvesting, and greater pressure on valuable marine resources. Partially as a result of these changes, 24% of the endemic plant species and 50% of the vertebrate species are considered endangered.
The islands are subject to the 1998 Special Law for Galapagos but have been neglected by previous management, and the rapid economic growth of the islands, coupled with increased immigration, has taxed the capacity of the Galapagos’ management authorities. The president’s solutions will focus on the proper implementation of this special law and will include strengthening Galapagos management authorities, ensuring the development of sustainable businesses, strengthening the work of the Galapagos National Park Service and CDF (Charles Darwin Foundation) to manage endangered species and control invasives, and educational reform.
The declaration of the Ecuadorian president addresses concerns that have been held for many years regarding the future of this fragile ecosystem.
For more detailed information on the Galapagos, visit UNEP’s (United Nations Environment Programme) World Conservation Monitoring Centre page at http://www.unep-wcmc.org/sites/wh/galapago.html
or the Charles Darwin Foundation at http://www.darwinfoundation.org