A few years ago I had the great fortune to spend some time in the Galapagos – one of the most profound journeys I have ever gone on – it is literally like no other place on this earth and a nature photographer’s idea of heaven. I was fascinated by the island’s eponymous tortoises whose ancient looking craggy faces spoke of many years of hardship:
When Spanish explorers landed on the islands in the early 16th century, they came upon giant tortoises. and named them “galapagos” for the saddle-like shape of the tortoises’ shell or carapace. This reptile can weigh over 500 pounds, grown up to 5 feet in length, can live up to 150 years and most importantly for the explorers, their meat is sweet, plentiful. The tortoises can also live quite a long time (up to a year) without water, making them a perfect food source for the long journeys across the seas. The tortoises were so in demand, that out of the 250,000 that are believed to have lived in the Galapagos, over 100,000 of them were killed by pirates, whalers and seamen over three centuries after the Spanish explorers’ first landing. By the 1970’s only 3,000 remained.
However, the tortoises story doesn’t have a tragic ending. Today there are between 20-25,000 Galapagos tortoises alive today due to the tireless effort of scientists, naturalists and conservationists.
In 1972 a sole member of a fourth saddleback species was discovered on the tiny Pinta Island and he is perhaps the most famous reptile in the world: Lonesome George, pictures at the top of this post. LG was a saddleback tortoise and was the supposed last of his species. He lived the latter part of his life in an expansive home in the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz and for 40 years humans tried in vain to find him a mate. LG was over 100 years old when he died, unfulfilled in June of 2012, and a fourth species of saddlebacks was thought to have joined the growing ranks of the extinct.
However, tortoises have been recently discovered on Pinta Island with the same genes as George and now live in a breeding center on Santa Cruz. Scientists are studying the DNA of these tortoises and hope in the near future to start breeding those with the purest “George Genes.” If all goes well, a new saddleback tortoise population might be released back onto Pinta Island – as soon as within 5 to 10 years – and the species once lost can be revived.
Most recently, on June 15, 2020 to be exact, the Galapagos National Park Directorate and Galapagos Conservancy released 15 reproductive adult tortoises from Española back to their island. The Española tortoise program, which was created in the mid-1960s, represents one of the most successful captive reproduction and breeding programs ever undertaken anywhere in the world, as these 15 last remaining tortoises from Española saved their species from extinction and have contributed to the restoration of the island’s ecological integrity. These tortoises are now part of the 2,300 other tortoises that now reproduce naturally on the island which are now able to support the growing tortoise population.
There is another famous Galapagos tortoise who once was set to live out his life in captivity in the San Diego Zoo: Diego. This giant tortoise, despite being more than 100 years ago, has actively and quite enthusiastically contributed to the creation of about 40% of the hatchlings during the breeding program before he was returned to the island of his birth, Española, 80 years after his removal.
This video is perhaps NSFW, but gives you an idea of how these giant tortoises work hard and quite vocally to keep their species going- put your volume up: