Good News for the Giant Tortoise

Niccie King/Flickr


Guest post by EarthShare member charity Galapagos Conservancy

We all know the story of the tortoise and the hare, a tale about the failure of hubris and the value of persistence. In the field of conservation, persistence has proven the key ingredient to success. The revival of a once vanishing species in the Galapagos Islands is one great example of this story’s timeless lesson.

The giant tortoise was one of the most devastated of all species in the Galapagos Islands due to exploitation for their meat and oil, predation by introduced species such as rats and pigs, and habitat destruction from introduced goats.

In the 1960s, the population of one tortoise species, the Española tortoise (Chelonoidis hoodensis), had declined to only 15 individuals. These tortoises were captured and bred in captivity, and in 1975 the first offspring were released back to the island.

Over the last nearly 40 years, more than 2,000 tortoises have been repatriated to their native Española Island. Approximately half of those tortoises survived and many are now breeding naturally on the island — and their population is considered stable, making the risk of future extinction low.

Using 40 years of data from tortoises marked and recaptured repeatedly for measurement and monitoring by biologists and managers, this collaboration of boots-on-the ground fieldwork with scientific analysis and methodology recovered a species from the brink of extinction. 

But the story is not over. This critical collaboration which is working so well in the islands has led scientists to set an ambitious goal — bringing back all tortoise populations to their islands of origin: retortoising the archipelago.

The first stop is Santa Fe Island where giant tortoises went extinct about 150 years ago. Using an analog (similar) species of tortoise, park wardens will release 200 young tortoises from Española, the species most closely related to the Santa Fe tortoise.

Over the next several years, tortoises will return to Floreana Island, where they have been extinct for over 150 years, and to Pinta Island, home of the last known Pinta tortoise, Lonesome George, who died in 2012.

Recently, genetic testing on tortoises found on the island of Isabela revealed tortoises with partial Pinta and Floreana ancestry. This startling discovery has led to a plan for captive breeding of these tortoises. If all goes as planned, the first young tortoises will hatch in 2015, and the first repatriation will take place in 2019 or 2020.

Happy endings are not relegated to fairy tales. In the world of conservation, where there can be so many missteps and conflict between humans and wildlife, the Galapagos Islands offer a heartwarming antidote to bad news elsewhere. Conservation is working in the islands, thanks to collaboration, public support, and yes, persistence. The tortoise wins again. 


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