Giant Tortoise and Photographer

The Galapagos Tortoise: An Uplifting Success Story in Wildlife Conservation

Giant Tortoise and Photographer
 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. 

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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.

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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.”

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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.