A panel of politicians has voted to remove the Galapagos Islands from the UN's list of World Heritage Sites in danger – in spite of a firm recommendation from scientists and officials who visited the islands that they should keep their status.
The Pacific archipelago, whose unique wildlife inspired Charles Darwin's theory of evolution were included on the list in 2007 after scientists warned they were facing environmental disaster from mass tourism, immigration, development, overfishing and the invasion of alien species.
Following a visit in April, a group of UN scientists raised concerns that port facilities in Ecuador, to whom the islands belong, and Galapagos were still not sufficiently bio-secure to prevent more alien species such as plants, fungi and even diseases being transported from mainland South America to the islands.
They also raised new concerns about the sport fishing industry which is taking off in Galapagos without a proper regulatory framework, and recommended the islands remain on the danger list. However, on Wednesday the politicians, members of the World Heritage Committee of Unesco, the UN's cultural body, ignored them, and in effect gave Galapagos a clean bill of health.
Last night Toni Darton, director of Britain's Galapagos Conservation Trust, the principal charity supplying environmental backup to the islands' national park and Charles Darwin research foundation, said: "We are very concerned by this decision and its implications. It is premature. It suggests the islands are out of danger and they are not. They are still in danger, absolutely."
There were 40 species on the islands whose conservation status was "critically endangered," Mrs Darton said.
The archipelago, 600 miles off Ecuador's coast, the first location to be declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco 30 years ago, is remarkable for its endemic wildlife which has developed over millions of years in isolation and includes giant tortoises, marine iguanas, flightless cormorants and 13 separate species of finch.
After visiting the islands in 1835, Charles Darwin realised that these 13 separate species had probably originated in a single species that had arrived on the islands from the South American mainland many thousands of years earlier, and as a direct result began to conceive his theory of evolution by natural selection.
In recent years the islands have become increasingly popular as a tourist destination, and the influx of tourists, combined with immigration from the mainland, has resulted in growing environmental threats. The population has grown from 2,000 people in 1960 to more than 30,000 now.
Although the World Heritage Committee put the islands on its danger list only three years ago, they were removed from the list by the committee at its meeting in Brazil's capital Brasilia. The panel of 21 states, which has a rotating membership and currently does not include the UK, voted 15-4 to delist Galapagos, at the instigation of Brazil, and after hearing an appeal from the environment minister of Ecuador.
"Although the Ecuadorian government has taken significant steps to make Galapagos a national priority for conservation, it is too early for these to have any real impact," said Mrs Darton. "Saving Galapagos is a marathon, not a sprint."
One of the iconic species of Galapagos, the marine iguana, Amblyrhynchus cristatus, is found nowhere else in the world and is unique among lizards in that it can live and hunt for food (much of it kelp) in the sea, with the ability to dive down to depths of 30ft. It has spread to all the islands in the archipelago where it lives mainly on rocky shores, although it can also be found in marshes and mangrove beaches.
The flightless cormorant, Phalacrocorax harrisi, also known as the Galapagos cormorant, is another unique species in that it is the only cormorant which has lost the ability to fly. There are only 1,500 birds in the population, which makes it one of the rarest birds in the world, and it is the subject of an active conservation programme.
Weighing as much as 660lbs, and up to 4ft long, the Galapagos giant tortoise, Geochelone nigra, is the biggest tortoise in the world, and one of the planet's longest-lived organisms with a life expectancy in the wild estimated at up to 150 years. Its numbers have dramatically fallen since the islands were discovered because of hunting and the introduction of predators, but a captive breeding programme has been very successful and has now released hundreds of juveniles back into the wild on their home islands.