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Photo: Peter Szekely, Aves (Some rights reserved)

Spotlight on the Galápagos Islands

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The 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species made the Galapagos famous. A century later in 1959, Ecuador declared 97 percent of the Galapagos islands a national park.

In 1979 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designad the Galapagos Islands as a World Heritage Site, the first place on the planet to receive the designation.

The archipelago is also recognized as a RAMSAR site.

The park is protected under the 1998 Special Law which empowered authorities to enforce restrictions on fishing, tourism and other activities in the park. The law also created the multi-stakeholder Participative Management Board which includes representatives from the tourism industry, the Charles Darwin Foundation Research Staion, local guides, Galapagos fishermen, environmental groups and the government.

More than 200,000 people travel to the Galapagos Islands each year. The national park consists of almost 2 million acres, most of which is off limits to visitors.

Industrial fishing threatens the marine ecosystem. Sea cucumbers and lobsters have been harvested to dangerous levels. Ships from other countries routinely enter the marine reserve illegally in search of rich catches, including sharks, which are harvested solely for their fins.

In recent years, fishermen have rioted and sacked the national park offices.

Isabela Island
Isabela is the largest island of the entire archipelago and the only one straddled by the equatorial line. Of a total population of over 30,000, some 2,200 people live on this island, which contains over 60% of the flora and fauna of the entire islands. Amongst Isabela’s attractions: five active volcanoes, the most extensive wetlands on the archipelago, a white sandy beach and a relaxed fishing community.

Uncontrolled migration from mainland Ecuador has hindered most conservation efforts. According to an article in the Economist (2008), every $3,000 more the islands earn sucks in another migrant. Not very eco-friendly.

Traveler Tips
Most travelers fly to the islands, 600 miles west of the mainland. The government grants permits to a number of yachts that ferry visitors to more than 50 official sites. No more than about 16 people are allowed in one group and every group must be accompanied by a trained Ecuadorian naturalist.

Yachts vary in size. Some transport 90 passengers and provide luxury comforts. Others are smaller and carry less a dozen passengers.

Rules are strict. Travelers must follow well-marked trails. Visitors cannot feed the animals and are not supposed to approach them. Nevertheless, many of the creatures are curious and make contact themselves.

Corrective Measures
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.

After a special meeting in June and July 2007 UNESCO officials declared the site to be ‘in danger.’ Experts said the 19 islands and surrounding ocean were under threat from immigration, invasive species and increased tourism.

In April 2007 Ecuador declared the Galapagos Islands are at risk and warned that visitor permits and flights to the islands could be suspended. A growing population, illegal fishing of sharks and sea cucumbers have taken their toll. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) cites the ‘uncontrolled’ expansion of the tourism industry as one of the main threats facing the archipelago. The problem is that tourism has led to uncontrolled migration from mainland Ecuador. In 2010 the islands were removed from the ‘in danger’ list, but concerns are again being voiced by the islands’ residents. They have staged protests against plans to open the islands to foreign investors . Projects mooted include luxury hotels and even a golf course, however the Ecuadorian Ministry of Tourism have stated that they will not allow mega developments: Statement regarding the new organic law for the Galapagos Islands

Recommended Listening
Galapagos – Radiolab – The strange story of a small group of islands that raise a big question: is it inevitable that even our most sacred natural landscapes will eventually get swallowed up by humans? And just how far are we willing to go to stop that from happening?

Galapagos frolic – Join Robyn Williams off the coast of Ecuador for a tour of The Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos Islands have long been a favorite place travelers. That said, how eco is one of the world’s most famous biodiversity hotspots?

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