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Newly installed WiFi onboard on our new riverboat means we are lucky to now receive frequent updates on wildlife sightings from our Amazon River cruises. Expedition leader Freddy Avalos is reporting and sending photos from our small-group excursions this week.
The weather has been perfect today...a little rain before we left La Estrella Amazonica for our morning excursion. We started our day at Cocona Lake and boating along the creek, where we spotted this beautiful Saddle Back Tamarin climbing a cecropia tree.
When kids are in our group, one of the cruise highlights is catching a piranha. We spent time fishing in one of the tributaries of the Ucayali River, and I'm thrilled to say that every child caught a piranha (the youngest guest on our trip was eight)!
We threw back all of the small fish of course. Some of the kids asked if they could have their piranha for dinner, so Chef Rafael Zevallos and his assistant Cesar deep fried the piranha to serve on the buffet!
Patagonia – the sparsely populated region of South America that stretches across Chile and Argentina, from the southern tip of the Andes to deserts, steppes and grasslands in the east– is known for its larger-than-life natural attractions.
Everywhere you go in Torres del Paine National Park, big blue skies, massive glaciers, expansive lakes, lush fields of green, megafauna (including guanacos and Andean condors), and the majestic peaks of the Paine massif compete for your attention, providing an impressive WOW!-per-hour ratio.
But equally worthy of note are the smaller-scale wonders of the Patagonia flora. Flowers in this region tend to be tiny– many of our favorites are about the size of your thumbnail. But these miniature marvels come in a variety of vivid colors and shapes, working their way up through the arid soil of this harsh climate, where winds frequently whip at speeds of up to 80 mph.
CHILEAN FIRETREE (Embothrium coccineum): Alternatively known as Chilean Firebush or Notro in Spanish, this evergreen grows in the temperate forests of Chile and Argentina, with a dense root mass that allows it to access normally inaccessible forms of various nutrients. Its vidid red flowers bloom in spring, and are pollinated by hummingbirds and insects. Their color provides a striking contrast against the water and glaciers around Lago Grey.
COMMON SORREL (Rumex acetosa): This perennial herb, also known as spinach dock or narrow-leaved dock, is common in grassland habitats and cultivated gardens. The arrow-shaped leaves are often puréed for use in soups and sauces or added to salads, with an acidic, fruity flavor that’s been compared to kiwifruit or sour wild strawberries. One of the first plants to grow back after a fire, the sorrel’s brilliant red flowers create a picturesque carpet of color in the fields around Paine massif.
DWARF PARAMELA (Adesmia salicornioides): Part of an expansive genus of flowering plants in the legume family, this tiny flower is typically found at elevations of 2,000-3,500 meters throughout Patagonia. Smaller than the bush-like Adesmia boronioides (the leaves of which are used as an anti-inflammatory in local traditional medicine), the Dwarf Paramela grows low to the ground, boasting tiny golden flowers streaked with crimson.
FACHINE (Chiliotrichum diffusum): Part of a genus of flowering plants in the daisy family, this native Chilean species (which can also be found in the Falkland Islands) is locally known as Mata Verde because it grows from a lush green bush. It typically grows to a height of four to five feet, topped by hundreds of bright white flowers with yellow stamens.
FUEGIAN EDELWEISS (Perezia azul): Made famous in the U.S. by The Sound of Music, Edelweiss is a hardy mountain flower in the Asteraceae family (related to daisies and sunflowers). Although Edelweiss is typically associated with the Alps of Austria and Switzerland, this tiny South American variation’s periwinkle leaves and golden stamens add a pastel splash of color to the Patagonian landscape.
LADY SLIPPER (Calceolaria uniflora): Originating in Tierra del Fuego, these diminutive mountain plants typically grow to be less than four inches tall. Part of a genus alternatively referred to as a lady’s purse, slipperwort or pocketbook flower, this vivid variation boasts flowers comprised of yellow, white and brownish red. They’re a commonly seen burst of color along the hiking trails of Torres del Paine.
LUPINE (Lupinus): Seeds of this genus of flowering plants from the legume family have been used as a food source in the Andean Highlands for over 6000 years. Lupinus mutabilis (known as tarwi or chocho) was extensively cultivated by the Incas. Users would soak the seeds in running water to remove bitter alkaloids, and then either cooked them to make them edible or boiled and dried them. They’re coming back into fashion as an alternative to soybeans.
MATA NEGRA (Escallonia virgata): Native to South America, these flowering evergreens are beautiful high mountain shrubs, but they’re also widely cultivated (the Royal Horticultural Society has awarded six different hybrids) and often used as a hedge plant. They love sun and can grow up to 5-10 feet in height, typically flowering in the summer and early autumn. They bloom in masses of small pink or red flowers, with a sweet honey smell.
PORCELAIN ORCHID (Chloraea magellanica): Torres del Paine National Park features seven documented orchid species, with the Porcelain Orchid among the most often seen. Measuring around a afoot in height, the flower’s crackled green and white pattern earned it the nickname “Mosaic Orchid.” But it’s the bright yellow “tongue” that truly catches the eye, standing out against the greens that dominate the fields of Patagonia.
STREAKED MAIDEN (Olsynium biflorum): Dormant in summer and related to the iris, this evergreen perennial is native to Argentina, growing on sunny hillsides throughout Patagonia. The delicate, bell-shaped white flowers are lined with lilac stripes leading to gorgeous golden stamens, which are small and conjoined. The flowers only last a few days: If you see these beauties in bloom, consider yourself lucky.
HOW TO GO
Ready to explore Torres del paine National Park and more of Patagonia? International Expeditions offers comprehensive Patagonia Tours, exploring both Chile and Argentina. Avid photographers can also join IE's Chile Photography Tour.
All photos courtesy of Bret Love and Mary Gabbett, GreenGlobalTravel.com.
Cuba’s “off-limits” aura of mystique has given it an undeniable appeal among American travelers. From Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 novel The Old Man and the Sea to the success of the Buena Vista Social Club in the mid-‘90s, our fascination with Cuba’s rich history and culture has only grown deeper over time.
But, until recently, when the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control granted a select number of tour operators licenses to offer trips to Cuba under the People to People program, Americans had very few legal means of visiting the Caribbean country.
On December 17, President Barack Obama announced that he would finally restore full U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba – including opening an embassy in Havana – for the first time since the Cuba missile crisis of 1962. But what does this deal, which ended with a phone call between Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro, mean for American travelers? Although the recent announcement does not completely remove restrictions on traveling to Cuba from the U.S., it is certainly going to make it easier. Within the next few weeks the Department of the Treasury will issue new regulations about license requirements with the details of how Americans may travel to Cuba and for what purposes they are authorized to go.
Here are five things to know before you go:
1. This doesn’t mean you can just hop on a plane to Cuba.
If you’re picturing yourself jumping on a plane for a tropical beach getaway filled with mojitos, Cuban cigars and dancing to lively salsa music, think again. Travelers still have to be authorized to visit Cuba, with the White House listing 12 categories in which they could be approved:
“(1) family visits; (2) official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; (3) journalistic activity; (4) professional research and professional meetings; (5) educational activities; (6) religious activities; (7) public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; (8) support for the Cuban people; (9) humanitarian projects; (10) activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; (11) exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and (12) certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.”
2. There are still rules in place once you get to Cuba.
Although the White House statement suggests restrictions on Cuba travel may loosen over time, independent travel to the island isn’t on the agenda anytime soon. For now, all people-to-people trips will remain highly scheduled so that there is a full agenda of activities that engage American travelers with Cuban people. These trips include all meals, guides, transportation, activities and more. In other words, don’t expect to be able to roam the streets of Havana at your leisure.
3. Cuba will need time to catch up to the increased tourism demand.
International Expeditions executive director Steve Cox explained in an interview with USA Today that it’s a good thing the floodgates of Cuban travel from the U.S. are not being thrown wide open just yet, because Cuba doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle an influx of Americans swarming its shores. “Cuba really isn't ready for travel by mass Americans," he said. "There are some excellent hotels in Cuba but not enough. They're at almost full capacity for six months out of the year now."
4. Licensed Cuba travelers can bring back some long-banned imports.
Along with history and culture, Cuba is known for its indulgence in the simple pleasures, including delicious food, a good hand-rolled cigar and Havana Club rum (which has been distilled in Cuba off-and-on since the 19th century). But, until now, Americans couldn’t bring these things back to the U.S. legally.
Under the new White House policy, "licensed U.S. travelers to Cuba will be authorized to import $400 worth of goods from Cuba, of which no more than $100 can consist of tobacco products and alcohol combined.” And pundits predict that these limitations may be loosened even more as our diplomatic relations with Cuba continue to improve.
5. If you want to see “the real Cuba,” the time is now.
As restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba become increasingly relaxed, it’s a given that the tourism industry will invest in building up the infrastructure of an alluring tropical destination located just 90 miles away from Key West. It’s not a question of if there will be an explosion of Cuban tourism, but WHEN.
Historically speaking, such an influx of investment in mass market tourism brings with it elements of homogeneity. What this means for U.S. travelers to Cuba is that, if you want to explore a rare Caribbean destination that has remained largely untouched by globalization, there’s no time like the present.
How to Explore Cuba Now
35-year-old tour operator International Expeditions offers people-to-people Cuba travel that is licensed (CT-2013-299822-1) by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control. Through meaningful daily interactions and free-ranging discussions, the Complete Cuba, focusing on the island's natural areas and countryside, and Classic Art & Culture, based in Havana and the colonial-era port of Matanzas, itineraries offer you a way to connect with the warm, generous people of Cuba.
Newly installed WiFi onaboard on our new riverboat means we are lucky to now receive almost daily updates on wildlife sightings from our Amazon River cruises. Expedition leader Freddy Avalos is reporting and sending photos from our small-group excursions deep into the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve.
Tuesday morning we set out on the Sapote, a creek that feeds from the Rio Ucayali. We left La Estrella Amazonica early to give guests the chance to experience nature with a picnic breakfast. They loved it! We had a cloudy morning. Among the things we observed were a couple of Masked Tityra, Plum-throated Cotinga, Long-billed Woodcreeper. Here is a couple of a couple Lineated Woodpeckers.
During the excursion we also spotted two troops of monk saki monkeys...about 25 total. We were having so much fun that we tied to the riverbank and had our picnic breakfast with the monkeys! It was so cool. Rains sent us back to the riverboat, but we'll be out again soon.
Have a great day. - Freddy Avalos
La Estrella Amazonica, IE’s Amazon riverboat, is the first vessel in the Peruvian Amazon with onboard internet service! That means we are lucky to now receive almost daily updates on wildlife sightings from our Amazon River cruises. Expedition leader Freddy Avalos is reporting and sending photos from our small-group excursions deep into the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve.
Last night’s night excursion on the Pacaya River in the National Reserve was very productive for wildlife viewing. Last night we caught a spectacled caiman, allowing guests to see him up close before releasing back into the water. Other species observed included many frogs — both polkadot frog and giraffe frog — and a vine snake.
On our way back to the boat, we passed under some renaco, the local name for Ficus trees, and we spotted this great potoo.
After rain last night, this morning was perfect chance for swimming with dolphins next to the Rangers Station #2 on the Pacaya River. We were lucky to see a troop of squirrel monkeys and some red howler monkeys, plus blue-and-yellow macaws overhead.
I'm ready for another happy day on the Amazon! - Freddy
As the largest island in the Caribbean, located just a stone’s throw away from the sunny shores of Florida, Cuba is packed with some of the most distinct cultural and natural wonders to be found in the region.
Having been closed off to American citizens for decades, Cuba’s borders have finally been opened for travelers from the United States via licensed people-to-people programs, offering an amazing opportunity to discover this beautiful country through the eyes of the local people who know it best.
Cuba’s nine confirmed UNESCO sites (and three tentative ones) are a fine testament to the island’s rich and varied heritage. Here are a few of our favorites:
As the cultural epicenter of Cuba, it’s no surprise Havana’s Old Town — known locally as La Habana Vieja — was awarded UNESCO status in 1982. Don’t be fooled by its rough-around-the-edges exterior: There’s a lot of passion in Old Havana, and the somewhat tattered character only adds to its charm. Here you can walk through squares surrounded by impressive baroque and neoclassic-style buildings, which have made Havana one of the most historically significant cities in the Americas. Can’t-miss activities include taking a ride around the city in a vintage car and sampling a daiquiri in El Floridita, one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bars. These stops are ideal for chatting with your local guides about Havana’s past and future!
TRINIDAD & VALLE DE LOS INGENIOS
Sugar has played a huge role in Cuba’s cultural heritage in terms of both production and trade. The Valle De Los Ingenios (“Valley of the Sugar Mills”) is in the southern central section of Cuba. Here you can see dozens of ruins of sugar mills that were important for business back in the 19th century. Nearby is the vivacious town of Trinidad, which was founded in the 16th century and acted as a central hub for the sugar industry. Trinidad’s signature colonial architecture is an essential sight for any trip to Cuba, and it’s a great place to catch some authentic live Cuban music as well.
On the west side of the island lies the 51-square mile Viñales Valley, which is filled with small towns and villages, miles of karst landscape and vast stretches of farmland. Traditional agricultural methods have been used here for hundreds of years, primarily in the production of tobacco (another of Cuba’s most famous exports). It was named a UNESCO World Heritage site for this reason, helped along by the signature undulating hills you’ll find here, which burst from the ground in giant mounds measuring up to 1,000 feet high.
SAN PEDRO DE LA ROCA CASTLE
Rivalry tore through the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries, which made the fortifications of San Pedro de la Roca Castle in Santiago de Cuba one of the region’s most important defense points. This majestic fort still stands proudly today as a shining example of Spanish-America military architecture. It’s one of the most historically significant sites in Cuba’s rich history, added to the UNESCO list in 1997. Some of the best views in all of Santiago de Cuba can be found atop the castle walls, looking out over the ocean. There’s also a small museum inside the fort where visitors can learn a little more about its history.
Located just up the west coast from Trinidad, Cienfuegos is another of Cuba’s most mesmerizing cities. When the sugar trade boomed during the 19th century, Cienfuegos began to emerge as a vital urban hub for Cuba’s economy. The town’s architecture is of particular significance: Cienfuegos was heralded as a pioneer for modernity in Latin America during the 19th century. Walking through the city today makes for a captivating experience, with colonial buildings, public squares and monuments, some of which are whitewashed and others splashed with bright Caribbean colors.
CIÉNAGA DE ZAPATA NATIONAL PARK
Currently on UNESCO’s tentative list for Biosphere Reserve status, Ciénaga de Zapata National Park offers a staggering variety of flora and fauna. Located around 90 miles southeast of Havana, these swampy wetlands are very similar to the Florida Everglades, rich with the most diverse wildlife to be seen in Cuba. There are over 30 reptile species and 175 bird species found there, from crocodiles, boars and manatees to flamingoes, Cuban trogons and the world’s smallest bird (the bee hummingbird).
It's Time to Explore Cuba
International Expeditions offers two Cuba travel options. Through meaningful daily interactions and free-ranging discussions, our Complete Cuba and Classic Art & Culture itineraries offer you a way to connect with the warm, generous people of Cuba.
Ecotourism – "Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”– wasn’t established as a firmly-defined travel philosophy until The International Ecotourism Society was founded in 1990, with International Expeditions as one of the organization's founding members.
But the core principle of conserving the natural environment and the wildlife that inhabit it for the benefit and enjoyment of the people has been around ever since the establishment of the first national parks in the United States (Mackinac National Park) and Australia (Royal National Park) back in the late 1870s.
It took another 50 years before the creation of Africa’s first national parks – Virunga was established in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1925, with South Africa’s Kruger National Park designated the following year. But few nature-lovers would argue against the assertion that the continent (particularly East Africa) now boasts many of the most impressive national parks and nature reserves in the world:
AMBOSELI NATIONAL PARK
Originally known as Maasai Amboseli Game Reserve, this 151-square mile ecotourism hotspot in Kenya’s Rift Valley was first set aside for preservation in 1906, established as a national park in 1974, and declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1991.
Although primarily known as the best place in the world for viewing free-ranging elephant herds, Amboseli also offers opportunities for cultural interactions with the indigenous Maasai people, extraordinary views of Mount Kilimanjaro, and a vast array of wildlife ranging from the “Big 5” mammals to over 400 species of birds.
Located 150 miles southeast of Nairobi, Amboseli is Kenya’s second most popular national park, attracting around 120,000 visitors annually.
MAASAI MARA NATIONAL RESERVE
A “bucket list” dream for practically every traveler with a passion for wildlife, the Maasai Mara is part of the massive Serengeti ecosystem, which covers approximately 12,000 square miles in northern Tanzania and southwestern Kenya.
The Maasai Mara is a prime destination for witnessing the annual Great Migration, which is widely considered among the world’s Top 10 Natural Wonders. Every year millions of gazelles, wildebeest and zebras make the arduous 500-mile trek northwest to Kenya in search of water and fresh grass. The famous crossing at the Mara River, where hungry crocodiles lie in wait, is unlike any other safari spectacle you’re likely to see.
Of course the Mara also offers numerous attractions at other times of the year, including lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, buffalo, hyenas, and more than 470 species of birds.
NGORONGORO CONSERVATION AREA
Based on fossil evidence found at the nearby Olduvai Gorge, where Louis and Mary Leakey began their famous archaeological excavations in 1931, the Ngorongoro area of Tanzania has been inhabited by various hominid species for approximately 3 million years.
Separated from Serengeti National Park in 1959, Ngorongoro became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It’s unique because it’s the only conservation area in Tanzania that protects wildlife while allowing human habitation, prohibiting cultivation of the land at all but subsistence levels.
The park’s most famous feature is Ngorongoro Crater, the largest intact, inactive and unfilled volcanic crater in the world. Formed when a volcano exploded and collapsed on itself, the crater is 2,000 feet deep and 100 square miles wide, providing home to more than 25,000 large animals (buffalo, hippos, gazelles, wildebeests, etc.), a dense lion population, and thousands of lesser flamingos flocking to Lake Magadi.
SERENGETI NATIONAL PARK
The Maasai people had been grazing their animals on Tanzania’s vast plains for around 200 years before the first European explorer showed up in 1892. They described the area as siringet, meaning “the place where the land runs on forever.” Although it was made a game reserve in 1921, it didn’t become a national park until 1951.
The Great Migration that ends in the Maasai Mara begins in this 5,700-square mile haven, which is divided into three regions– the grassland of the Serengeti plains, the riverine forest of the Western corridor, and the bushy savannah and open woodlands of the Northern Serengeti.
The park boasts staggering wildlife diversity, from the elephants and giraffes of the north and the Nile crocodiles and colobus monkeys of the western swamps to the huge herds of wildebeest, zebra, gazelle, impala and buffalo that crowd the plains during the wet season. It’s no wonder the UNESCO World Heritage Site is also Tanzania’s #1 tourist attraction.
TARANGIRE NATIONAL PARK
Though significantly less well-known than Serengeti National Park, Tarangire (the sixth largest park in Tanzania at 1,100 square miles) attracts an impressive array of animals thanks to the Tarangire River, which becomes the only source of water for wildlife during the dry season.
The park also has a number of other unique features, including many monolithic Baobab trees, massive termite mounds that often serve as home to dark mongooses, and tree-climbing lions. It’s also a major draw for bird-watchers, as the swamps on Tarangire attract one of the world’s most stunning arrays of breeding birds (over 550 species).
Ready to Experience Africa?
International Expeditions has a 35-year safari travel tradition, offering distinct small-group safaris and endless customizable private safari options. Start planning your Kenya & Tanzania Safari or private African safari today!
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Located off the southeast coast of India, Sri Lanka has only recently begun to emerge as a burgeoning ecotourism hotspot. But the wildlife of Sri Lanka is remarkable for an island measuring just 25,332 square miles, boasting a impressively high rate of endemic species (16% of the fauna and 23% of the flowering plants).
With over 120 species of mammals, 171 species of reptiles, 106 species of amphibians, 227 species of birds, and one of the world’s largest populations of blue whales and sperm whales, Sri Lanka is truly an animal-lover’s dream come true. Here are a few of the more intriguing species you might find there:
Sloth Bear: These medium-sized (average 290 pounds) bears evolved during the early Pleistocene era, and can be distinguished from Asian black bears by their lanky builds, shaggier coats, pale muzzles and white claws. They also have a specially adapted lower lip and palate, which the nocturnal insectivores use to feed on termites, honeybee colonies. The isolated Sri Lankan population is a subspecies, and currently classified as vulnerable by the IUCN.
Dugong: Related to the elephant, the dugong looks like a manatee, but with the fluke tail of a whale. Currently listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), these gentle underwater grazers are believed to have been the original inspiration for seafaring sailors’ tales of mermaids and sirens.
Indian Pangolin: Often referred to as “scaly anteaters” because they’re covered in a thick protective armor of overlapping scales, pangolins are among the world’s most endangered groups of mammals. Nocturnal and usually resting in deep burrows during the day, the pangolin is tough enough to curl into a ball and defend itself from a tiger or leopard attack.
Sri Lankan Leopard: This endemic subspecies, which is smaller than the Indian leopard (average 94 pounds and around four feet body length), is currently listed as endangered by the IUCN. But the southeastern coastal arid zone of Yala National Park boasts the world’s highest density of wild leopards, with studies estimating an adult population of 18 individuals on one 39-square mile block of the park.
Red Slender Loris: This small, nocturnal primate is a focal species of the EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) conservation project – a distinction reserved for animals with few close evolutionary relatives. Found only in Sri Lanka’s rainforests, their small size (7-10 inches tall, weighing around onr pound), huge eyes and prominent ears give them an endearingly odd appearance.
Golden Palm Civet: Appearing on the country’s three-rupee postage stamp, the golden palm civet is an endemic species found only in a 7,000-square mile area of Sri Lanka that includes lowland rainforest, evergreen mountain forests and dense monsoon forests. Currently listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN’s endangered species list, the animal is often confused with the Ruddy Mongoose by locals.
Purple-faced Langur: Once commonly found in Sri Lanka’s wet zone villages and the suburbs of Colombo (the capital city), this endemic Old World monkey is now on the IUCN’s Endangered list due to habitat loss caused by rapid urbanization. Primarily found in densely populated rainforests, their distinctive vocalizations (which include harsh barks and whoops) have been mistaken for leopards.
Sri Lankan Elephant: Yala National Park is renowned as one of the best places to see this endangered endemic species, which can also be seen in Udawalawe, Lunugamvehera, Wilpattu and Minneriya National Parks, as well as unprotected areas. In fact, Sri Lanka is estimated to have the highest density of elephants in all of Asia, despite the population decline caused by habitat loss and fragmentation.
Sri Lankan Jackal: This golden jackal subspecies, which is also known as the Southern Indian jackal, grows to be slightly larger than their mainland cousins (which average 28 inches long and weigh around 15 pounds). Their winter coat is also shorter, smoother and not as shaggy, with speckled black-and-white backs and colors that range from a warm tan to a rusty ochre.
Sri Lankan Spotted Chevrotain: Fairly common in forests throughout Sri Lanka’s dry zone (both protected and otherwise), this striped and white-spotted chevrotain is frequently seen in coconut plantations and home gardens. Also known as the mouse-deer, these tiny creatures are among the smallest ungulates in the world, weighing just 10-15 pounds and measuring around 21 inches in length.
How to Go
Inspired to explore the exotic wildlife and historic monuments of Sri Lanka? International Expeditions offers travel to Sri Lanka focusing on exploration of the natural highlights of the island while being immersed in nature. Check out IE's incredible Sri Lanka tours and start planning your adventure.
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If the Galapagos Islands had an official mascot, it would probably have to be the Galapagos tortoise. These ancient-looking creatures can weigh over 500 pounds and live over 150 years, and they’ve played a vital role in the history of the archipelago.
The Galapagos Islands’ natural resources have been exploited ever since their accidental discovery in 1535, from the marauding pirates of the 17th-18th centuries to 19th century whalers. Able to live for up to a year without food or water, the Galapagos Tortoise was nearly hunted to extinction for its meat.
The species’ situation grew even more dire after fishermen brought goats to the island of Española around the dawn of the 20th century. The feral goats’ feeding habits destroyed the native vegetation, and the Galapagos tortoise population along with it. Their total numbers dwindled down to around 3,000 in the 1970s, including just 15 of the Española sub-species.
The Galapagos tortoise was in serious trouble. But it laid the groundwork for one of the greatest success stories in the history of wildlife conservation.
DARWIN & THE THEORY OF EVOLUTION
These land-based reptiles were a key influence on Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. During the five-year Voyage of the Beagle (as his book on the expedition came to be known), the young naturalist observed that tortoises from different islands clearly differed in size and appearance, suggesting that they genetically adapted to their respective environments.
Tortoises on islands with ample water and short, close-cropped vegetation had curved front edges to their dome-shaped shells. Tortoises from arid islands had much longer necks and a high front peak on their shells, allowing them to stretch their heads vertically in order to reach branches of cactus and other plants.
Darwin subsequently theorized that species such as the Galapagos tortoise evolved over time in order to survive in their surroundings, and that natural selection determined which hatchlings would develop the physical ability to survive. And while science has considerably enhanced our understanding of animal behavior, genetics, molecular biology and population dynamics, Charles Darwin’s discoveries remain the key to our understanding of the natural world 150+ years later.
GALAPAGOS TORTOISE CONSERVATION
Fortunately, modern-day Galapagos tortoise conservation efforts have proven remarkably effective, with an estimated population of around 20,000.
They started by eradicating all the goats on Española, bringing in trained gunmen on helicopters to shoot them. Then they began a captive breeding program at the Charles Darwin Research Station on the island of Santa Cruz. Scientists use incubators to control the sex of each egg, turning it warmer to make “hot babes” and colder to create “cool dudes.” Once hatched, the babies are labeled with numbers, which makes them look like a reptilian NASCAR race waiting to happen.
The Station was once home to the most famous celebrity in the Galapagos Islands, Lonesome George, who passed away in 2012 and was the last of his Pinta Island subspecies. But equally deserving of acclaim is Diego, a Galapagos tortoise originally from Española. When Diego was returned to the Station from the San Diego Zoo in the 1970s, there were two males and 12 females of his subspecies at the station, but they weren’t breeding. Diego taught the others how to mate, and has since produced more than 1700 offspring, earning him the nickname “The Professor.”
Eventually the Galápagos National Park Service reintroduced these captive-bred tortoises to Española island, marking and occasionally recapturing them over the years. As a result of these efforts, today 10 subspecies of Galapagos tortoises survive in the wild, with thousands of captive-bred juveniles released onto their native islands and strict laws in place to ensure their protection. Experts recently revealed that the tortoise population is now stabilized and may not need further human intervention.
It’s difficult to describe the feeling of being within a few feet of a creature four times your age and at least twice your size, but the experience is both humbling and heartwarming. Here, mankind and animals are learning how to co-exist peacefully and sustainably. And the Galapagos tortoise stands tall as a symbol, not just of the islands they call home, but of wildlife conservation efforts all around the world.
How to Go
Inspired to explore the famed Galapagos Islands and walk among the giant tortoises? International Expeditions offers year-round Galapagos cruises along with land-based options in the islands. Check out IE's incredible Galapagos tours and start planning.
How to Help
International Expeditions was a founding member of IGTOA, a non-profit group dedicated to funding projects to combat invasive species and illegal activities within the Galapagos National Park, and promoting ecological education. Read here for more on Galapagos Islands conservation projects.
La Estrella Amazonica, IE’s Amazon riverboat, is the first vessel in the Peruvian Amazon with onboard internet service! That means we are lucky to now receive almost daily updates on wildlife sightings from our expedition leaders!
Expedition leader Angel Cardenas reporting from our November 7, 2014 Amazon River cruise. Each picture below was taken by Angel during our excursions over the past two days.
Yesterday and today have been amazing days in the rainforest! All our guests are happy and we are having good weather.
Today on our excursion we saw an incredibley rare HARPY EAGLE!
During our morning jungle walk we observed a Fer-de-lance Snake! Both sightings made our morning!
In the afternoon, along Pacaya River, we saw Red Howler Monkeys, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Orange Backed Troupial and Scarlet Macaw.
Learn more about the wildlife of the Amazon and common sightings during our Amazon Voyage by clicking here to see a wildlife checklist.