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

Operations Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: I am currently recruiting for an Operati...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, Security Cleared

£100 - £110 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Ham...

Senior Digital Marketing Executive

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based i...

Junior Developer- CSS, HMTL, Bootstrap

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading company within the healthcare ...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz