GALÁPAGOS GIANT TORTOISE
In a world of incredibly unique, stunning fauna, it says something when you’re the most famous of the lot. Of all the fauna the Galápagos offers, the archipelago’s giant tortoises are perhaps the most recognizable and the most beloved. So beloved that the islands were named after the lumbering creatures; the Spanish word galapago translates to “saddle,” a term the early explorers applied to the tortoises upon seeing their shells.
Galápagos giant tortoises are aptly named as they are indeed rather giant. With some tortoises reaching over 5 feet in length and growing to reach up to 700 pounds, it’s hardly surprising that they’re the largest tortoises in the world. It’s also quite handy that they can’t fall on you. Walk among these leisurely giants on our Galapagos Island Vacation.
When Darwin first breached the shores of the Galápagos, he found 14 different species of giant tortoises living throughout the archipelago. Currently, only 11 different species survive. Over the course of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, an estimated 100,000 tortoises were killed by visiting merchants, pirates, and whalers. Even when humans weren’t delivering the killing blows or abducting them from their island homes, feral populations of pigs, dogs, cats, goats, rats, and cattle have decimated much of their food supply as well of their eggs. Only about 20-25,000 giant tortoises are alive today.
Perhaps the most prominent loss of a Galápagos giant tortoise species was the loss of Lonesome George, a Pinta Island subspecies who was brought to the Charles Darwin Research Station in 1971 and survived until 2012. Though the Galápagos National Park attempted to find George a mate and save the species, their efforts ultimately failed. With Lonesome George’s death at over 100 years old, the Pinta Island tortoises went extinct.
In order to combat this devastation, the Galápagos National Park Directorate, the Charles Darwin Foundation, and international scientists have gathered together for the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative. This initiative has made incredible efforts with their tortoise breeding programs, repatriation programs, alien species eradication programs, and more. More than 550 tortoises have already been repatriated to Pinzón and over 1,700 to Española. Meanwhile, hybrid Pinta Island tortoises discovered also give some hope to the continuance of Lonesome George’s family.
In an ironic turn of events, what once kept the tortoises from extinction played a significant role in the eventual extinction of 4 species.
One of the giant tortoises’ most impressive adaptations that allowed them to survive the islands’ harsh conditions—the ability to survive without water or food for up to a year—also led to their downfall. Whalers, fur sealers, and buccaneers discovered that live tortoises could be kept in the holds of their ships and thought, voila, fresh meat supply for lengthy voyages. Thus began the hefty exploitation of the giant tortoises.