Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Historic birth for Galapagos tortoises

Historic birth for Galapagos tortoises James Gibbs
21 Jan
2015
First giant tortoise hatchlings born in the wild in over 100 years found by conservationists in the Galapagos Islands

Some of them might still remember it. Hunted down and eaten by whalers and pirates, their offspring preyed upon by invasive rodents, dogs, and pigs, the Galapagos Island giant tortoise had a rough couple of centuries, as their isolated Pacific island home came under wave after wave of attack from foreign invaders. One in particular, the Pinzón Island saddleback giant tortoise (Chelonoidis ephippium) found itself on the brink of extinction; by the 1960s, there were only approximately one hundred animals left in existence.

Thankfully for them, it was also around this time that the Galapagos National Park was founded; an institution set up to protect the remaining giant tortoises, which eventually came to operate across 97 per cent of the Galapagos Islands. Through a special programme, conservationists began collecting eggs and raising hatchlings in captivity, away from the jaws of hungry black rats, a species introduced to the islands by whaling ships in the 17th and 18th centuries. These conservations methods managed to halt the population decline of giant tortoises, however, the proliferation of rodents across the islands made it impossible for the animals to breed without human intervention.

Galapagos-Islands-map

A new initiative launched in 2012 aimed to change all that. Known as ‘Project Pinzón’, this joint Galapagos National Park–Charles Darwin Foundation plan saw helicopters flying back-and-forth across several Galapagos islands – including the 18km2 Pinzón Island – scattering in total around forty tons of poisoned rat bait.

We are now seeing the results of that initiative. During a recent population survey on Pinzón Island, a team led by Dr. James Gibbs, Professor of Vertebrate Conservation Biology and Associate Chair of the Department of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York, discovered ten newly hatched saddleback tortoises, the first Galapagos giant tortoises to be reared in the wild in over a century.

It was humbling to find those small tortoises, and realise there were probably many more lurking in the nearby dense brush,’ Gibbs tells Geographical. ‘They are hard to find, so we can assume there were probably ten or a hundred times as many as we found. In seeing these little guys, I could only think of the many park guards and others who have worked for so many years to get us to this point. These little tortoises are rewards to all, for a lot of hard work by many.’ By the end of the survey, the team had encountered over three hundred tortoises on the island, and Gibbs estimates an overall population of well over five hundred.

This is, of course, only early days in the restoration of a species which is notoriously slow to grow and breed. And Galapagos Conservancy, an organisation working with the Galapagos National Park, the Charles Darwin Foundation, and a network of numerous other Galapagos organisations, highlights that rapid growth of both resident and tourist numbers is putting extra strain on the islands’ ecosystems, and of course, on conservationists’ ability to prevent the re-introduction of rats and other invasive species to Pinzón Island.

The process of tortoise restoration is a very long one, given the slow generation times in tortoises, which invite vulnerability in a rapidly changing world, yet also provide us extended opportunity to correct our abuses, which is the case here,’ says Gibbs. ‘Few types of creatures could persist without breeding in their native habitat for over a century.  Perhaps we can finally step back out of the picture and let the Pinzón tortoise restore itself. I’m honoured to serve as a collaborator to the Galapagos National Park in achieving their remarkable conservation successes, not just for Galapagos, but also because these successes inspire much more broadly than just Pinzón Island.’

galapagos-6Image: James Gibbs

Related items

Subscribe to Geographical!

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • Natural Capital: Putting a price on nature
    Natural capital is a way to quantify the value of the world that nature provides for us – the air, soils, water, even recreational activity. Advocat...
    The human game – tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    The Money Trail
    Remittance payments are a fundamental, yet often overlooked, part of the global economy. But the impact on nations receiving the money isn’t just a ...
    Alien views
    The tabloids would have us believe that immigrants are taking our houses, our jobs, our school places and our hospital beds. But a close reading of th...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Wildlife

Technology used in creating safe urban environments is now being…

Climate

Brazil’s shift to the right of the political spectrum could…

Wildlife

Laura Cole travels to Orkney to find out why numbers…

Wildlife

The unprecedented frequency of winter tick epidemics have resulted in…

Oceans

Ocean debris, mostly composed of plastic, reaches remote Atlantic islands…

Geophoto

With motion detectors becoming ever more sophisticated, and clearer, crisper…

Nature

Natural capital is a way to quantify the value of…

Tectonics

The reason for the unusual location of Mount St Helens…

Climate

Most plants thicken their leaves in response to higher carbon…

Climate

Not just the preserve of flatulent cows, methane is causing…

Climate

As the United States’ Supreme Court delays a landmark climate…

Geophoto

Of Britain's 15 national parks, the New Forest is probably…

Energy

The Treasury has announced that it is considering imposing a…

Tectonics

Major earthquakes are triggering seismic activity half the world away

Climate

Marco Magrini finds that a warming world also means a…

Wildlife

Unchecked tourism is potentially reducing the number of cheetah cubs that…

Oceans

A relocated military base in Okinawa, Japan will cause ‘irreversible’…

Climate

The ongoing recovery of the planet’s ozone layer is being…

Oceans

The Ocean Cleanup has launched System 001, a floating barrier…

Nature

New videos reveal how plants respond to wounds, sending forth…