Last summer Unesco (the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) voted to remove the Galapagos Islands from its list of endangered World Heritage sites. The organization was recognizing the Ecuadorian government’s preservation efforts since 2007 when its protective status was first invoked.
But not everyone thought this was a good idea. Some environmentalists say there has not been enough time to assess long-standing improvements, and some tourism operators fear that the government may become lax with regulations, as it has in the past.
"I think many folks in the conservation community felt concerned that this action would give the impression that all the issues had been resolved," said Johannah Barry, president of the Galapagos Conservancy. "On the one hand, the government of Ecuador has made some important strides, both with marine and terrestrial management. But there are many of us who feel that an oceania archipelago should never come off an endangered list, just because of its extremely fragile nature."
Ashish Sanghrajki, president of Big Five Tours, which operates Galapagos Tours, said locals definitely still consider the islands to be endangered.
"I was a little disappointed that it was taken off the endangered list [myself]," he said. "You still have issues of overcrowding and problems with boats not following regulations."
The huge number of tourists the Galapagos gets year round may be good for the economy in the short-term, said Sanghrajki, but it may not prove sustainable in the long-term. "No one really expected the kind of volumes [we're] getting right now. So now, the locals are taking a much closer look at protecting the ecosystem, because as tourism has ramped up over the last two decades, it has become a large part of Ecuador's GDP."
This dilemma, though, is giving way to innovation in the private sector. Luxury eco-tours have surfaced, such as the Galapagos Safari Camp, a new tented safari run partially on solar power. There are also cruises and boat tours which have been certified as ecologically sound by the UN-recognized Smart Voyager program. One company operating such tours is Ecoventura.
In addition, Sanghrajki's company is involved with the Recycling Center in Fabricio Valverde Environmental Park, a huge operation on Santa Cruz island.
Certain islands have particularly good track records with preservation, too, says the Galapagos Conservancy. There have been major efforts to protect species of endangered animals and promote biodiversity, for instance, on Floreana island and Pinta island (the latter being home to the famous Galapagos giant tortoise), according to the organization.
Overall, the archipelago still has about 95% of its original biodiversity intact. A few endangered species to see before it is too late include Darwin finches, Galapagos penguins, giant tortoises and whale sharks, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
To leave the smallest footprint behind, the World Wildlife Fund's Galapagos Program recommends using tour companies that are certified by the Galapagos National Park, which manages all the islands. Program director Eliecer Cruz also encourages tourists to lengthen their stays on the islands in order to help limit occupancy while stimulating the local economy.
Cruz hopes that the removal of the Galapagos from the list of endangered sites will be "a momentum-builder for all stakeholders" involved.
However, conservationists and tourism operators agree that the islands could very well go back on that list in the coming years. They also agree that it is the government's job to make sure this does not happen.
Mr. Barry of the Galapagos Conservancy said that while she gives the government "fairly high marks" for its efforts to preserve biodiversity, she worries about issues like development and the use of limited resources.
Sanghrajki agrees. "As long as the government doesn't go back to relaxing policies or turning the other way, I don't believe the Galapagos would end up on the [endangered] list again."
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