The following is based on true events (and research):
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, a group of buccaneers set sail to find a new world to pillage and plunder. After weeks of wind and the sea, they finally saw a speck of land out in the distance, which turned out to be several specks; several small islands in fact. Tired from their long journey, maybe suffering from scurvy, probably dealing with lice (and likely because the rum was gone), they decided to explore these islands.
What they found was a lush landscape full of beautiful flora and fauna, most that had never been seen before. Surprisingly, the animals weren’t afraid of them, they had no reason to be since they had never been introduced to humans before.
The buccaneers then began to do what they did best. They started to gather the animals and kill them. One group of scallywags looked down the beach and saw a giant moving boulder. He was stunned and shocked, not only that it was moving slowly toward him, but that it also appeared to not be a rock, but was, indeed, a giant tortoise. They were so excited to see these beautiful and prehistoric creatures that they immediately made stew out of them. They found later that the tortoises could live for weeks without food and water, so naturally they packed them up and took them on their voyage home for food and gifts.
So began the decline of the Galápagos Tortoise.
In 1831 the HMS Beagle set sail from England along with an unmotivated and mostly failing medical scholar. The five year journey was to observe and survey the coasts of South America. In a fortuitous chain of events, the HMS Beagle made a pit stop at the Galápagos Islands. The young scholar disembarked the ship and was awed by what he saw. He spent his time documenting and writing his observations on the flora and fauna in his journal, making sketches of what he saw.
As this young man sat on the beach watching what was probably the millionth finch hop around, a giant tortoise came to make his acquaintance. Unlike the buccaneers so many years before, this young scholar was not about to make a stew. Instead, he did what any self-respecting medical scholar would do in his situation. Charles Darwin tried to ride it.
It is believed that Darwin, along with the First Lieutenant of the HMS Beagle, collected some tortoises to bring back to England with them (and as I mentioned earlier, those things are really easy to travel with). It is reported that the Lieutenant brought three home and named them Tom, Dick, and Harry. Later finding out that Harry was not a boy, she was renamed Harriet and became a gift to the queen. Harriet had a pretty amazing life, and later passed away in Australia, in 2006 at an estimated age of 175.
One of the most rare giant tortoise findings was on Pinta Island, where just one long necked, giant tortoise remained, being discovered by a Hungarian scientist who was there to study snails in 1971. He was named Solitario Jorge - Lonesome George -after George Gobel, a TV comedian. He was the last known of his sub-species due to the fact that Pinta was thought to have no tortoises on it back in the 1950s. Fisherman introduced tiny goats to the island and the population boomed to roughly 40,000 virtually destroying any hope that a tortoise would have a viable habitat on the island. No one could have guessed that George had survived. He came to live at the Darwin’s research center, and after years of research and breeding attempts, Lonesome George passed away in June 2012.
It is estimated that there were 15 species of tortoise when Darwin arrived on the Galapagos, and during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries nearly 100,000 were killed. Today there are around 11,000 tortoises on the Galápagos Islands and only 10 species.
Although we have made great lengths in our efforts to conserve and protect this amazing species, we still have a long way to go. The Galápagos tortoise remains on the endangered species list where it has been since the 1970s. The Darwin Research Station, the Galápagos Conservancy, and the Giant Tortoise breeding centers hope to change that.
Today, you can visit the breeding centers, the research stations and see the efforts that are being made to make sure that these animals are around for a long time. With one of the longest known life expectancies, there could be some old timer out there who was around when Darwin first came to the islands, and as long as we continue the research and protection of the species, there will still be giant tortoises to visit in 100 years.
“Whatever happens to this single animal, let him always remind us that the fate of all living things on Earth is in human hands.” — These words are inscribed on the information panel outside the enclosure of Lonesome George at CDRS/GNP.