Fears for unique wildlife of Galapagos as UN drops islands' protected status

Scientists condemn 'premature' removal of world heritage listing

A A A

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."

Island wonders

Marine Iguana

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.

Flightless Cormorant

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.

Giant Tortoise

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there