January 30, 2008 / 6:31 PM / 12 years ago

Galapagos sea lion massacre fuels conservation fears

A sea lion rests on a beach in Ecuador's Galapagos islands May 1, 2007. REUTERS/Guillermo Granja

QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuadorian authorities are investigating the massacre of 53 sea lions in the pristine Galapagos islands in an incident fueling concerns over the government’s capacity to protect the famous archipelago.

Park rangers found the decomposing sea lions with their skulls crushed on a remote islet earlier this month and now reports of tourists meddling with animals are prompting calls for stricter controls at the U.N. World Heritage site.

Ecuador is already debating whether to limit growing tourism on Galapagos and has expelled hundreds of illegal workers there to protect the natural reserve after the United Nations warned last year that the site was in danger.

“It is obvious the control system has to be greatly improved,” said Luis Suarez, the head of Ecuador’s branch of Conservation International. “We need satellite control to know where people are, and better police intelligence to know more about the traffic of species and their organs.”

Authorities are unclear why the sea lions were butchered. Traffickers often kill the animals to take organs in demand for traditional medicines. But these sea lions were untouched except for head wounds, officials said.

Ecuador’s media also recently criticized local Galapagos authorities after showing images of one tourist holding a baby sea lion and another sitting on top of a massive tortoise in a violation of strict controls at the site.

The volcanic islands, located 650 miles off Ecuador’s coast, inspired British naturalist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Centenarian tortoises and blue-footed boobies live alongside 18,000 islanders who earn a living from fishing and the tourism industry.

“The growing demand and the tourism market is imposing the rules of the game,” Eliecer Cruz, the governor of Galapagos, told Reuters. “We are working very hard to look for a new type of tourism in Galapagos.”

Reporting by Alonso Soto; editing by

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