Galapagos Taken Off Heritage Danger List While Still at Risk

BRASILIA, Brazil, July 29, 2010 (ENS) – The United Nations’ World Heritage Committee has decided to remove Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands from its list of globally important sites in danger, despite an expert recommendation to the contrary.

The Galapagos, known as a unique “living museum and showcase of evolution” were inscribed on the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger in 2007 because of threats posed by invasive species, runaway tourism and overfishing.

Tourists enjoy a Galapagos experience. (Photo by Marcel Perkins courtesy Galapagos Journey Cruises)

Meeting in Brasilia, the 21-nation panel today approved a Brazilian recommendation to withdraw the islands from the list, saying the government of Ecuador has made “significant progress” addressing threats to the Galapagos.

But the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which advises the UNESCO committee says the removal is “premature.”

“The removal of this unique site of global importance to humanity is somewhat premature,” says IUCN Director General, Julia Marton-Lefevre. “IUCN stands ready to continue its work with the Ecuadorian government to fully implement the recommendations of the World Heritage Committee.”

“IUCN’s recommendation for the Galapagos was that it should not be removed from the Danger List as there is still work to be done,” says Tim Badman, who heads IUCN’s World Heritage Programme. “But we recognize the major efforts of the Ecuadorian government to rectify the situation there.”

Tourist gets a close-up photo of a giant tortoise on the Galapagos island of Santa Cruz. July 29, 2010 (Photo by Richard Choi)

“Threats from tourism, invasive species and overfishing are still factors and the situation in the Galapagos remains critical,” Badman said today. “We will need continued strong commitment from the Ecuadorian government over the coming years to resolve these issues.”

The Galapagos chain of volcanic islands were named the first World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978.

Located at the confluence of three currents in the Pacific Ocean some 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from the South American continent, these 19 islands and the surrounding marine reserve are inhabited by unusual animal life.

The land iguana, the giant tortoise and the many types of finch are among the creatures that inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection following his visit to the Galapagos in 1835.

Today, invasive species are the greatest direct threat to the Galapagos’ unique ecosystems. People began introducing goats, pigs and cattle to the islands when they were first settled in the early 19th century. These livestock species, along with cats and dogs, have established wild populations and prey on, or compete with local species, driving some of them to extinction, such as the land iguana of Santiago island.

Feral goats strip the Galapagos of vegetation, causing erosion. (Photo by Bill Bishoff)

Feral dogs are a threat to tortoise eggs, native iguanas and penguins. Four goats introduced to the Santiago Islands in the early 1800s, have multiplied into an estimated population of 100,000. Due to their ability to feed on nearly any plant, goats alone may be responsible for the local extinction of up to five plant species and compete with the Galapagos tortoises for their food source.

A newly introduced wasp species has been sited on the islands, and may be responsible for a declining number of caterpillar larvae, a food source for finches.

“A growing number of introduced plant and insect species, along with micro-organisms which cause disease, pose an increasing risk to Galapagos biodiversity, driving up the cost of managing them by eradication or permanent control,” according to the World Heritage Committee.

Increasing tourism and population growth in Galapagos have been linked to the difficulty of keeping introduced species out of the islands.

Some conservation progress is evident. The giant tortoises, a signature species in the Galapagos, were nearing extinction until scientists recently reintroduced tortoise hatchlings to Espanola, the southernmost island.

Crowd at a market and restaurant in Puerto Ayora, the Galapagos’ largest city (Photo by Dolma Alonso)

The conservation effort has resulted in a reproducing population of more than 1,500 tortoises, according to a survey conducted over 10 days in June by wardens from the Galapagos National Park Authority.

Preliminary results of the survey also found that albatross, cactus and woody plants have recovered somewhat, restoring the island to something resembling to what Darwin saw.

But the population of the Galapgaos is increasing, bringing with it problems of waste disposal and greater pressure on the islands’ natural resources.

Hoping to find work, people from mainland Ecuador have moved onto the islands. The 1990 census showed the population at 9,735. Today, more than 20,000 people live on the islands.

The population is doubling every 11 years, which means that there will be 40,000 people on the Galapagos Islands by 2014.

The Charles Darwin Foundation, a Belgian international nonprofit organization that works with the Ecuadorian government, Wednesday announced a new Director of Terrestrial Science, Dr. Rodolfo Martinez.

Dr. Martinez is aware of the conservation challenges facing the island chain. “Several areas of Galapagos have been heavily impacted by agriculture, ranching, introduced plants and urban expansion,” he said. “These activities have contributed to soil degradation which greatly affects the health of terrestrial ecosystems, reduces critical habitat for native flora and fauna, and facilitates invasion by introduced species.”

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