Galapagos UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Galapagos islands are one of the most unique ecosystems and iconic travel destinations on the planet. This has long been acknowledged through its early designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In fact, it was declared in 1978 as the first ever site to make the coveted list. Most are aware of the islands’ World Heritage status, but what does it mean exactly? What is it that makes the Galapagos so special? And what benefits does World Heritage recognition bring?
What is the UNESCO World Heritage List?
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation is an international body dedicated to the identification and preservation of cultural and natural heritage across the globe. Specifically, it focuses on those locations deemed to be “of outstanding value to humanity” and hence in need of extra attention and protection to ensure their continued survival. To date, 192 countries have ratified UNESCO’s convention concerning the protection of world heritage and there are over 1,000 sites on the list. These are divided into sites of outstanding cultural importance and sites of outstanding natural importance, with each one meeting specific criteria outlined by UNESCO.
What is the Galapagos World Heritage Site?
The site consists of Galapagos National Park which was set up in 1959 and covers about 97% of the entire area of the islands. Around 120 islands in total fall under the protection of UNESCO and the Ecuadorian government. The islands were formed over millions of years through ongoing seismic and volcanic activity and through processes of wind and ocean erosion that have given rise to an astonishing natural landscape. Lofty volcanic peaks, otherworldly lava fields, striking white sand beaches, rocky shorelines and lush forests are just some of the habitats that characterise the islands.
The Galapagos are located at the confluence of three major ocean currents which gives rise to an amazing abundance and diversity of marine life, including sealions, sharks, rays and penguins. The isolation of the islands has also been directly responsible for the evolution of unusual animal life. These include endemic species found nowhere else on Earth, such as giant tortoises, Darwin finches, flightless cormorants and colourful land iguanas. Many of these played a pivotal role in inspiring Darwin’s theory of evolution and their unique status continues to make them a high priority for conservation efforts today.
How do the Galapagos qualify?
The Galapagos feature amongst the most significant ecological sites in the world, being described by UNESCO as a unique “living museum and showcase of evolution”. There are endless reasons that make the Galapagos such a special place to visit. Here are four of the main factors cited by UNESCO:
- The rich underwater environment – The UNESCO World Heritage Site designation was extended to cover the Galapagos Marine Reserve in 2001, and with good reason. The islands boast an incredible mix of marine and coral species and rate amongst the very best places to dive in the world. Of particular note is the fearlessness of much of the underwater life, which allows divers to get up close and personal with sealions, penguins, sharks, rays and plenty more.
- The archipelago’s ongoing geological formation – The Galapagos are situated over a hotspot of seismic and volcanic activity which has given rise to the unique chain of islands we see today. The continuing evolution of the islands today - from the oldest in the west, to the youngest in the east - provides a living laboratory for the observation and appreciation of unique volcanic, geological and geomorphological processes.
- Unique flora and fauna – The Galapagos contain the highest concentration of native and endemic species on the planet. As well as being incredible to witness in their own right, these unique species are of great value in helping scientists better understand a variety of ecological, evolutionary and biogeographic processes still today.
- High biological diversity – The Galapagos islands boast a high level of species diversity, a major factor behind their world-wide significance and fame. As well as being endemic to the islands, many species are also endangered or threatened with extinction, a major factor in driving responsible tourism and conservation efforts across the islands.
What are the benefits of World Heritage status?
There are many incredible benefits to a World Heritage status, including:
- Raising awareness on the world stage of the islands’ importance for conservation.
- Leveraging the political influence of World Heritage status to pass laws and regulations promoting the site’s protection. In the Galapagos, this has included stricter controls around immigration, visitor numbers, alien species and economic activities.
- Increased funding for equipment and research studies to aid in the preservation of the site.
- Improving site management through training and networking opportunities.
In 2007, the Galapagos islands were placed on the World Heritage Site In Danger list. This new designation can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, it reflects the growing pressures facing the islands from population growth, tourism, overfishing and invasive species. On the other hand, it focuses even more attention and effort towards protecting and enhancing the value of the islands. Whilst the Galapagos undoubtedly continue to face significant challenges and uncertainties, it seems the latter may ring more true. The islands were officially removed from the threat list in 2010, largely in recognition of Ecuador’s progress in strengthening conservation measures.
A trip to the Galapagos islands is a true once-in-a-lifetime experience. Its World Heritage designation not only reflects the astonishing beauty and unique value of these islands, it also plays an instrumental role in safeguarding the site itself, ensuring this iconic destination continues to be enjoyed responsibly in the present and well into the future. For more information on booking a Galapagos Tour, please contact us or call 1-888-215-3555.