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.
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.’