- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2007

NEW YORK

They inspired Charles Darwin, harbor the most stunning menagerie, and delight thousands of tourists each year.

But the Galapagos Islands were put off limits Wednesday because of fears that their fragile ecosystem is close to collapse.

The islands that inspired Darwin’s theories on evolution are at grave risk from a population boom, overfishing and, the Ecuadoran government says, the thousands who travel each year to see the remarkable animals that live there.

The Pacific islands about 600 miles west of Ecuador harbor centenarian giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas and even vampire finches.

These creatures may no longer be on the itineraries of ecotourists after Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa signed a decree to suspend tourism and preserve the islands’ natural treasures.

“We are pushing for a series of actions to overcome the huge institutional, environmental and social crisis in the islands,” said Mr. Correa, pre-empting the findings of a United Nations Environmental, Scientific and Cultural Organization report on the archipelago. Mr Correa said the required course of action is clear. “We do not need studies from some international organization,” he said. “We are declaring the Galapagos at risk.”

The government measures also would include a census of the islands, home to a significant illegal human population.

UNESCO declared the islands a world heritage site in 1971 and has monitored the ecosystem.

Though authorities cap the number of tourists, the islands have about 120,000 visitors each year, 100,000 more than 30 years ago. Mr. Correa said Ecuador will consider suspending some tourism permits and enforce rigorous population restrictions. The indigenous species have long struggled to contend with the arrival of nonnative predators such as black rats, dogs, cockroaches and cats that have been introduced since English pirates brought goats in the 18th century.

Environmental pressures have increased in recent years, including a growing human population, illegal fishing of sharks and sea cucumbers, as well as internal bickering at the islands’ national park. UNESCO’s World Heritage Center warned last month of the threats to the islands’ flora and fauna. A U.N. delegation is visiting the islands to determine whether the world heritage site should be officially declared in danger.

Critics say the Ecuadoran government failed to act as environmental pressures built on its main tourist attraction.

Martin Wikelski, a biologist at Princeton University, said: “The government needs to be stricter on what is allowed there.

“It is one of the world’s most unique ecosystems … and continues to be one of the most important laboratories for evolution studies.”

The isolation of the islands made their ecology unique, allowing animals to adapt without external influences.

Fewer than 3,500 people lived on the islands 30 years ago and tourism was negligible. Today, the 19 islands house two airports and 18,000 people, who earn a living from fishing and tourism.

Thousands of feral goats also are posing a threat to the habitat of the Galapagos’s giant tortoises.

Five years ago, it emerged that the Darwin finches, which the naturalist studied closely on his voyage of the Beagle in the 1830s, are threatened by an intruder. Many of the species — whose beak differences were crucial in informing Darwin’s theory of evolution — are being attacked by larvae of parasitic flies accidentally introduced to the islands by boat or plane.

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