May 16, 2010
This date just became a historic moment for the Galapagos Islands and for the most famous and representative element of the Archipelago’s fauna: the mythical and iconographic giant tortoises who give their name to these unique Islands…
Precisely on this date, 39 giant tortoises were brought by the National Parks Service’s staff and liberated on Pinta or Abingdon Island, one of the northernmost on the Archipelago. This is the first day, since 1972, that this remote island sees the giant reptiles again, after the legendary “Lonesome George” was removed from the Island and brought to the Giant Tortoises Rearing Center on Santa Cruz Island. “Lonesome George” is the single last individual of a particular race of Galapagos giant tortoise, which inhabited Pinta Island. The island was surveyed extensively, then and after, and no other individual was found…. The Pinta race of giant tortoises had been decimated by the devastating action of thousands of feral goats who, in turn, destroyed the vegetation which served as the tortoises main food source.
While the Solitary male tortoise from Pinta, now in Santa Cruz, is closely monitored and intense efforts are made to get him to reproduce and consequently prevent his race from definite extinction, the 39 tortoises released today on Pinta are part of a long-term management measure to allow the restoration of the local ecosystems integrity. The tortoises, being herbivores, through their motion patterns, contribute to the dispersion of seeds from the local flora.
While in the early 1970’s there was an estimated population of 40.000 feral goats on Pinta Island alone; the National Park, undertaking a gigantic effort and operation, did accomplish, in 2003, the total eradication of the wild goats from that island and started preparing a process of ecological restoration, mainly focused on the native flora of this island. To complete the process, the return of the giant tortoises was necessary, in order to complete the balance, with the giant reptiles acting as “ecological engineers”.
Since it became impossible to repopulate the island with its own endemic race of giant tortoise, a group of hybrid tortoises, of unknown origin, and which were being kept at the Santa Cruz and Floreana Rearing Centers, were selected for the historic task. They weigh between 40 and 100 kilos and have ages estimated between 30 and 70 years. Among the special measures taken by teams of scientists from several foreign universities, mainly from the United States, together with Galapagos National officials and personnel, these tortoises were previously sterilized in order to avoid their reproduction and to conserve the natural evolutionary processes of Pinta Island. They were also kept under a special quarantine regime and their health has been closely monitored, including permanent analysis of their feces, to ensure they would not be the bearers of seeds, corresponding to plants alien to Pinta or the Archipelago in general. Prior to their release, they received telemetric tags and satellite devices, which will allow the scientists and National Park staff to continuously monitor their movements and activities, once released on the island.
This is a landmark scientific project, undertaken and supported by international organizations and the Government of Ecuador, through the National Park Service, which provides a great opportunity keep Galapagos as an example of conservation and science, while remaining one of the world’s most prestigious tourism destinations, equally recognized as a model of tourism management on a particularly fragile and unique protected area. To enhance the significance of the occasion, the expedition to release the 39 tortoises on Pinta was led by the Minister of the Environment of Ecuador, Marcela Aguiñaga and the Director of the Galapagos National Park, Edgar Muñoz, who were accompanied by the scientists, investigators and other persons who made the project possible.