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Galapagos Travel: After 40 Years, Giant Tortoises back on Pinta Island

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Travelers visit breeding centers for giant tortoises in the Galapagos, and meet some of the newest residents. Photo by Alicia Cruz
Travelers visit breeding centers for giant tortoises in the Galapagos, and meet some of the newest residents. Photo by Alicia Cruz

In late May 2010, thirty-nine giant tortoises were released onto the Galapagos' Pinta Island. Called the "Pinta Project 2010", the release and monitoring of the tortoises is definitely a team effort that includes Ecuador's Ministry of Environment, the Galapagos Conservancy, Galapagos National Park, State University of New York, and the Huston Zoo. Pinta Island has not seen tortoises on its shores for nearly 40 years, when the last known Pinta Tortoise, Lonesome George, surprised park rangers with his existence. Before whalers and sailors started hunting Pinta's tortoises, it is believed the island was once home to somewhere between 5,000-10,000 giant tortoises.

Lonesome George, perhaps the Galapagos' most famous inhabitant, was removed from Pinta Island in 1972. Since then, numerous attempts to produce a George Jr. have unfortunately failed. (Even as late as last summer brought new hopes of an offspring, when eggs were found in the nest of a female tortoise who shares a corral with George - but unfortunately the eggs were not viable.) This means, the tortoises released on Pinta are NOT native species. Johannah Barry, President of Galapagos Conservancy, explains how and why non-native species can be released:
Given that one of the main goals of the GNP [Galapagos National Park] is to conserve the evolutionary integrity of the archipelago's biodiversity, release of hybrid tortoises into the wild is unacceptable. Therefore, these tortoises were destined to spend their entire lives -- as much as 150 years or more -- in captivity. By sterilizing these tortoises, they can now be released into the wild on Pinta as non-reproducing contributors to the restoration of the island's ecosystem.

Goats that were introduced to the islands in the late 1950s destroyed much of the native flora. Now completely eradicated, the tortoises can go to work as what the Galapagos Conservancy calls 'ecosystem engineers': naturally restoring the island's vegetation through "movement patterns, herbivory and seed dispersal."

Check out the clip from NBC's The Today Show, who was recently in the Galapagos to capture this historic release on film.

A Good Track Record
The re-tortoising of the Galapagos seems to have a bright future. This June, park wardens from the Galapagos National Park surveyed Española Island and confirmed that previously released tortoises are thriving. When the captive breeding program began, only 15 tortoises remained on Española. This month's survey confirms that the released tortoises are now breeding, nesting, hatching and doing well; so well in fact that scientists are determining if captive breeding of Española's tortoises is still necessary. Like Pinta, the tortoises on Española fell victim to hungry sailors and the introduction of goats. Goats are now eradicated from Española.

There are currently 11 sub-species of Giant Tortoises in the Galapagos. Ten sub-species of giant tortoises exist in the wild on the islands of Isabela, Santiago, Pinzon, Santa Cruz, San Cristobal & Espanola. The 11th species has one remaining survivor, Lonesome George, who resides at the Charles Darwin Research Station. Adventure Life and our travelers have helped to raise nearly $50,000 for island conservation, and projects the re-tortoising of the islands. Contact us to learn more how your Galapagos cruise can help protect the delicate nature of the Galapagos.

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