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Unchecked tourism puts Galapagos Islands at serious risk

Introduction of non-native species into the Galapagos Islands ecosystem puts survival of native flora and fauna in jeopardy.

24 April, 2007

Unbridled tourism is causing grave damage to the Galapagos Islands, the archipelago that inspired British naturalist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Tourism, overpopulation and non-native species are threatening the ecosystem of the Galapagos, environmental experts say.

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

Most of the harmful changes have followed a three-fold increase in tourism to the islands over the last 15 years as well as a similar rise in immigration.

Studies show that 60% of the 1,880 local plants are threatened in Galapagos. In all, 490 insect species have been introduced as also 53 new invertebrate species, 55 of which are particularly invasive.

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

A major reason for the degradation of the Galapagos ecosystem has been the introduction of dogs, cats, goats and donkeys – species that were not on the island before.

Many specialists have said that the situation in the Galapagos Islands is grave but not irreversible provided urgent conservation measures are taken.

Rafael Correa, President of Ecuador, has announced that the Galapagos Islands, which attract a large number of tourists each year thanks to the islands’ unique array of flora and fauna, are in danger because of a heavily damaged ecosystem.

With a view to protecting the Galapagos Islands, a UNESCO World Heritage site, President Correa has issued orders to limit tourist traffic, overhead flights and residence permits on the isles, which are located 1,000 kilometers from Ecuador’s coast.

The Galapagos is in such grave danger that UNESCO sent a team to determine if the archipelago should be officially listed as one of the major world heritage sites that are “in danger.” If the situation does not improve, the islands risk losing their status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The UNESCO mission that visited the Galapagos confirmed President Correa’s warning that there are serious threats to the islands.

President Rafael Correa is the first Ecuadorian leader to declare openly that the archipelago is at risk and should be a national priority and that there is an urgent need to overcome the institutional, environmental and social crises that the islands are currently going through. In fact, for a politician, President Correa’s was a bold and risky move, given the fact that over 120,000 tourists visited the Galapagos in 2006, fetching revenues of about $400 million.

UNESCO’s environmental experts estimate that, if tourism continues to grow at the present rate, over 400,000 people will visit the islands each year by 2021. UNESCO cites the uncontrolled expansion of the tourism business as one of the main threats to the Galapagos Islands.

If UNESCO determines that the Galapagos National Park and Galapagos Marine Reserve are in danger of losing the World Heritage Site status, the World Heritage Committee will have to put in place a plan of action to address the threat. UNESCO will announce its decision in this regard in June 2007.




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