Protected Areas of the Galápagos Islands (Ecuador)

Protected Areas of the Galápagos Islands (Ecuador)

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Situated in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles from the South American continent, the protected areas of the Galápagos Islands include the Galápagos National Park, the Galápagos Marine Reserve, and the Galápagos Biosphere Reserve.

Protected Areas of the Galápagos Islands

The Protected Areas of the Galápagos Islands include:

  • Galápagos National Park

  • Galápagos Marine Reserve

  • Galápagos Biosphere Reserve

The Galápagos Islands (Archipiélago de Colón) is an archipelago located about 965 km (600 mi) off the coast of Ecuador in the eastern Pacific Ocean. It comprises 127 islands, islets, and rocks, of which 19 are large and four are inhabited.

The islands and their surrounding waters form the Galápagos Province of Ecuador, the Galápagos National Park, the Galápagos Marine Reserve, and the Galápagos Biosphere Reserve.

The Galápagos Islands were declared a Natural Heritage Site for Humanity in 1978. Over two decades later, UNESCO extended this designation to include the Galápagos Marine Reserve.

Galápagos National Park

In 1959, the centenary year of Charles Darwin's publication of The Origin of Species, the Ecuadorian government declared 97.5% of the archipelago's land area a National Park, except for areas already colonized. The Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) was founded the same year. The remaining 2.5% is distributed between the inhabited areas of Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Baltra, Floreana, and Isabela islands.

The core responsibility of CDF, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) constituted in Belgium, is to conduct research and provide the research findings to the government for effective management of Galápagos. CDF's research efforts began with establishing the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island in 1964.

During the early years, conservation programs, such as the eradication of introduced species and the protection of native species, were carried out by research station personnel. Now, much of that work is accomplished by the Galápagos National Park Service using CDF's research findings and methodologies.

Galápagos Marine Reserve

In 1986, the 70,000 sq km (27,000 sq mi) of ocean surrounding the islands was declared a marine reserve, second in size only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef. In 1990, the archipelago became a whale sanctuary.

The Galápagos Marine Reserve is an underwater wildlife spectacle with abundant life ranging from corals to sharks to penguins to marine mammals.

The Reserve is one of the biggest in the world, covering 133,000 sq km (51,352 sq mi) and includes the area within 40 nautical miles from the islands' coasts, as well as the islands' inland waters, such as lagoons and streams.

Galápagos Biosphere Reserve

In 1984, the Archipielágo de Colon (Galápagos Islands) Biosphere Reserve was designated under the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Program (MAB). In 2019, the Biosphere Reserve was renamed the Galápagos Biosphere Reserve and was expanded to include 14,689,887 ha (36,225,369 acres), becoming one of the largest protected marine areas in the world.

The climate of the Galápagos Islands is characterized by low rainfall, low humidity, and relatively low air and water temperatures. The islands have thousands of plant and animal species, of which the vast majority are endemic. An open cactus forest covers the archipelago's arid lowlands.

A transition zone at higher elevations is covered with a forest in which pisonia (a four o'clock plant) and guava trees dominate, and the moist forest region above the transition zone is dominated by a Scalesia forest with dense underbrush. The treeless upland zone is covered with ferns and grasses.

The Galápagos Islands are formed of lava piles and dotted with shield volcanoes, many of which are periodically active. High volcanic mountains, craters, and cliffs accentuate the striking ruggedness of the arid landscape.

The largest of the islands, Isabela (Albemarle), is approximately 132 km (82 mi) long and constitutes more than half of the total land area of the archipelago; it contains Mount Azul, at 1,689 m (5,541 ft), the highest point of the Galápagos Islands. The second largest island is Santa Cruz.

The archipelago's geology begins at the sea floor and emerges above sea level, where biological processes continue. Three major tectonic plates, Nazca, Cocos and Pacific, meet at the basis of the ocean, which is of significant geological interest.

The larger islands typically comprise one or more gently sloping shield volcanoes, culminating in craters or calderas, and the terrain is generally composed of uplifted marine lava flows.

In comparison with most oceanic archipelagos, the Galápagos are very young, with the most prominent and youngest islands, Isabela and Fernandina, with less than one million years of existence, and the oldest islands, Española and San Cristóbal, somewhere between three to five million years.

Ongoing geological and geomorphological processes, including recent volcanic eruptions, small seismic movements, and erosion, provide critical insights into the puzzle of the origin of the Galápagos Islands. Almost no other site in the world offers protection of such a complete continuum of geological and geomorphological features.

More than 250 species are non-native introductions occurring predominantly around human settlements. Coastal vegetation, influenced by the presence of salt, occurs along beaches, saltwater lagoons and low, broken, boulder-strewn shores.

The endemic fauna includes invertebrate, reptile and bird species. There are a few indigenous mammals. All the reptiles are endemic, except two marine tortoises, and include the giant tortoise (Geochelone elephantopus), terrestrial iguanas (Conolophus subcristatus and C. pallidus), and marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus).

The origin of the flora and fauna of the Galápagos has been of great interest to people ever since the publication of the "Voyage of the Beagle" by Charles Darwin in 1839. The islands constitute an almost unique example of how ecological, evolutionary and biogeographic processes influence the flora and fauna on both specific islands as well as the entire archipelago.

The 1999 resident population numbered some 15,600 persons. Freshwater is a critically limiting factor, and only San Cristobal has adequate perennial supplies for the local human population. Tourism, cattle grazing, and fishing are critical to the islands' economy. Immigration from the mainland is uncontrolled and increasing.