updated 9/14/2004 12:20:38 AM ET 2004-09-14T04:20:38

Some 300 Galapagos Islands rangers peacefully occupied park research stations Monday to protest the reported firing of the park director and his probable replacement.

Environment Minister Fabian Valdiviezo late Monday defended the decision to replace Park Director Edwin Naula, a biologist, with Fausto Cepeda, who held the post before in the early 1990s.

“Mr. Cepeda was director of the park before and also has plenty of international experience,” Valdiviezo told channel 4 television. He said one of the first tasks Cepeda would tackle would be an administrative evaluation of park operations with “more experienced people.”

Park employees argue Cepeda is a political appointee and won’t protect the archipelago’s delicate ecosystem.

“All the park rangers are on strike,” park spokesman Diego Anazco told The Associated Press by telephone from the islands, 620 miles west of Ecuador’s Pacific coast. “The park rangers are opposed to institutional instability and the exchange of an expert for a politician,” Anazco said, adding that Naula remained in his office awaiting official notification of his firing.

The protest, which started over the weekend, has not affected tourism, he said.

Several international scientific and environmental organizations have frozen funding to the park in anticipation of Naula’s ouster, Anazco said, and as a result park employees have not received their salaries for two months.

The World Wildlife Fund last week made an official appeal to Gutierrez to leave Naula in place.

The Galapagos Islands are home to exotic species, including giant tortoises and marine iguanas, that inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

One of the big fights between conservationists and local fishermen has been over the harvest of sea cucumbers, found in the waters around the islands. A close relatives of sea urchins, they are sold as delicacies and aphrodisiacs in Asia.

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