The Galapagos Islands lie in the Pacific Ocean, about 625 miles (1,000 km) off the coast of South America. Because these volcanic islands have risen out of the seabed, evolution has taken place in isolation from the mainland, giving rise to species endemic to the islands. As Charles Darwin realized after his visit to the islands in 1835, species on neighboring islands within the group have evolved unique characteristics in response to their environment. The result is a number of species and subspecies with small, localized populations, leaving them vulnerable to habitat destruction, disease, or climate change.
“Galapagos” means “tortoise” in Spanish, and the islands are home to giant tortoises, as well as about 300,000 marine iguanas. In the absence of indigenous predators – rice rats and two species of bat are the only native mammals – seabirds have bred freely, and large colonies of boobies, frigate birds, and the rare lava gull have flourished. In 1959, Ecuador declared the islands a national park, and in 1978 they became the first United Nations World Heritage Site. In 2007, however, they were placed on the World Heritage in Danger list because of the threat to their unique biodiversity from invasive species, tourism and immigration.
Only some of the islands have been settled, but the total population has grown from 2,000 in 1970 to 18,000 in 2008. Settlers have so far brought about 500 species of plants to the Galapagos, which are displacing the native flora. Introduced animal species include rats, cats, and goats (successfully eradicated from some islands). Tourism is the mainstay of the economy, with over 108,000 visitors in 2004, but fishing is also important. At least 800 fishermen are based on the islands, and larger boats fish off-shore, creating a hazard to marine mammals and birds.
In April 1997, the President of Ecuador issued an emergency decree, restricting the introduction of alien species, and promoting conservation. In 1998, the no-fishing zone around the islands was extended from 15 to 40 nautical miles, creating a marine reserve of over 50,000 square miles (130,000 sq km). However, attempts to limit fishing have been met with resistance from local people. The fate of the wildlife on the islands hangs on whether both economic and conservation needs can be met.
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