Ecuador's President Vows to Help Galapagos Islands At Risk

QUITO, Ecuador, April 16, 2007 (ENS) – The conservation and environmental management of the Galapagos Islands ecosystem is "at risk and a national priority" due to the anarchy and lack of institutionalization that prevail in the archipelago, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa declared Sunday. The President pledged new protective measures by the end of April.

Correa

President of Ecuador Rafael Correa (Photo courtesy Government of Ecuador)
President Correa signed a decree declaring that the "overlapping of duties, attempts to ride roughshod over others, and politicking that prevail in Galapagos," have put the islands and their unique species at risk. The President promised to put regulations into effect "to overcome the grave institutional, environmental and social crisis that the islands are currently going through."

The Galapagos Islands, in the equatorial Pacific about 1,000 kilometers (650 miles) from the South American coast, are a globally outstanding repository of biodiversity with up to 95 percent of the original pre-human plants and animals remaining.

The islands and surrounding waters are inhabited by giant tortoises, land and marine iguanas, unique finches, and the only penguin species which lives in tropical waters. Sea lions and fur seals are found around the coasts, while dolphins, whales sharks and sea turtles are common.

After a fact-finding mission to the Galapagos last week, a joint United Nations - nonprofit team today confirmed serious threats to the Galapagos Islands World Heritage site caused by encroachment by invasive species, uncontrolled tourism and other challenges.

Threats include agricultural pests, predation on giant tortoise eggs and young by feral pigs and rats, and destruction of the native vegetation by herds of feral goats. Originally introduced for food, bands of goats have stripped whole mountainsides of vegetation, leaving the islands’ giant tortoises without food or shade.
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Giant tortoise and introduced goats on Isabella island, Galapagos. (Photo by Charles Darwin Foundation courtesy HEAR)
The visit, from April 8 to 13, was led by Tumu te Heuheu, chairman of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee; Kishore Rao, Deputy Director of UNESCO's World Heritage Center; and Berndt von Droste of IUCN-World Conservation Union.

The trip took place at the invitation of the Ecuadorian government.

"The mission welcomed the decisive action taken by the President of Ecuador to address comprehensively the long-standing problems of the Galapagos Islands, with a series of new policies to be adopted in the coming two weeks," the group said.

President Correa, who took office in January, said that the government, "with no need for prompting from international organizations," has decided to act and is "uncovering a latent problem that is the consequence of years of disregard and neglect by previous governments and that it is now high time to face with responsibility, earnestness and courage."

The Charles Darwin Foundation, CDF, today applauded President Correa's declaration that Galapagos is at risk and is a national conservation priority.

The Foundation, named after the British naturalist whose influential book "origin of Species" is based on his study of the Galapagos, was contracted by the government of Ecuador 40 years ago to provide the scientific input into the management of the Galapagos National Park.

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Galapagos tourists photograph nesting birds. (Photo credit unknown)
Tourism visitation has grown in Galapagos from 40,000 in 1991 to over 120,000 in 2006; over this period the tourism economy has grown at a yearly rate of 14 percent, the Foundation says.

This rapid economic growth has been coupled with a similar rise in immigration, outstripping the capacity of management authorities of Galapagos, including the National Institute of Galapagos, the Galapagos National Park, the Galapagos Inspection and Quarantine System and the Municipalities.

Dr. Graham Watkins, CDF executive director, said, "The consequences of this growth include an increase in invasive species, increased risk of pollution and finally the likelihood of greater pressures on high value marine resources."

There are now 748 species of introduced plants in Galapagos compared to the 500 species of native plants. Sixty percent of the 180 endemic plant species are considered threatened according to IUCN Red List of Threatened Species criteria.

There are now at least 490 species of insects and 53 species of other invertebrates introduced to Galapagos; 55 of which have the potential to cause severe impacts on native biodiversity.

Marine resources including lobster, sea cucumber and grouper have declined precipitously over the last 15 years.

The Galapagos Islands was the first site to be inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1978. The site was further expanded in 2001 to include the Galapagos Marine Reserve. The government of Ecuador has declared 97 percent of the land area as a national park.

During their visit, members of the UNESCO-IUCN mission took part in a multi-stakeholder meeting convened by the government of Ecuador with the participation of the ministers and vice-ministers in charge of the environment, multilateral relations, and tourism; the governor of the Galapagos Province and the mayor of the island of Santa Cruz.

The full findings of the mission will be presented to the World Heritage Committee in charge of implementing UNESCO's World Heritage Convention at its next meeting in Christchurch, New Zealand in July.

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Endemic marine iguanas on the Galapagos Islands. (Photo by Silke Berger courtesy Max Planck Society)
The World Heritage Committee is the governing body for the World Heritage Convention, made up of 21 members elected from the 183 countries that have ratified the World Heritage Convention.

The Committee will decide on actions to help ensure the long-term conservation of this site, including the possibility of inscribing it on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

Previous UNESCO-IUCN Galapagos mission reports to the World Heritage Committee in 2005 and 2006 have reported major threats to the long-term conservation of the islands that include introduction of non-native plant and animal species from increased air and maritime traffic.

Up to 300,000 sharks are taken illegally from Galapagos waters every year to feed the Asian shark fin soup market. The illegal capture of sea cucumber, though still intensive, has dropped from earlier peaks due to the massive reduction in populations from overfishing.

Today, 30,000 people live in three main settlements on the islands, most work in the tourism-related service sector, others in agriculture and traditional fisheries.

Every year over 100,000 visitors, mainly from North America and Europe, fly into the islands to embark on a cruise.

Despite laws controlling the movement of people from the continent to the Galapagos, an estimated 20 percent of Galapagos residents do not have the permits required to live there. Increased population leads to greater risk of introduction and spread of alien species, and to higher pressure on scarce resources.

The Charles Darwin Foundation says that since the establishment of permanent human settlements there, about five percent of the species of the Galapagos are estimated to have become extinct.