Heavily Toured Galapagos Islands in Peril: Experts

QUITO ~ Tourism, overpopulation and non-native species are threatening the ecosystem of the Galapagos Islands, the archipelago which inspired British naturalist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, experts say.

The islands, which attract hordes of tourists each year for their unique array of flora and fauna unseen elsewhere in the world, are “at risk” due to a heavily imperiled ecosystem, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has declared.

In order to protect the UNESCO World Heritage site, Correa has issued orders to restrict tourist traffic, overhead flights and residence permits on the isles 1,000 kilometers from Ecuador’s coast.

The situation is so grave that a UNESCO delegation has been dispatched to determine if the archipelago should be officially listed as one of the major world heritage sites that are “in danger.”

“We have not yet drawn our conclusions but it shouldn’t be any secret to anyone that we are concerned about the islands,” said World Conservation Union program director Robert Hofstede.

The mission’s findings will be examined from June 23 to July 2 by an intergovernmental committee on world heritage sites in New Zealand.

The situation has worsened in the past 15 years due to the introduction of insects that are harmful to plants and other animal species that are disrupting the native balance, according to the Charles Darwin Foundation research group.

Most of the harmful changes have accompanied a three-fold increase in tourism to the island over the past 15 years as well as a similar rise in immigration, said foundation chief Graham Watkins.

“Studies show that 60 percent of the 1,880 local plants are threatened. We have discovered 490 insect species that have been introduced as well as 53 new invertebrate species, 55 of which are particularly invasive,” Watkins said.

The 8,000-square-kilometer islands and 45,000 square kilometers  of surrounding waters are populated by giant turtles, sharks, Darwin finches, marine iguanas, sea lions, rare trees and insects.

Many specialists have said the situation is grave but not irreversible as long as urgent conservation measures are taken.

“The first thing is to shore up the ecological barrier by limiting the ports of entry: one heliport, one port and (the imposition of) a quarantine declaration,” Watkins said.

The Ecuadorian president’s decree called for a temporary suspension of new tourist permits and air links to the archipelago, which is visited by 100,000 tourists each year.

Visas will no longer be issued to residents and those who are not legally on the island – estimated by UNESCO to be around 20 percent of the 30,000 inhabitants – will be sent home.

A major factor in the ecosystem’s decline has been the introduction of dogs, cats, goats and donkeys – species that were not on the island before.

“Part of the reason we are at this point is because man has introduced these species which have become the Galapagos’s main predators,” biologist and co-director of the Galapagos Park Carlos Valle said.

Over the past three years, UN workers teamed up with the park to eliminate as many as 80,000 wild goats. These animals’ eating habits were threatening the food supply of the turtles that came centuries before.

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