Friday, May 30, 2008


As I supposedly started this blog in order to showcase some of my husbands wonderful photographs from our recent Galapagos trip, I figured it was about time I did another posting about these amazing islands. I am sure when people think of the Galapagos, one of the first animals that springs to mind is the Giant Land Tortoise. In fact the word Galapagos comes from an old Spanish word which refers to the saddle like shape of their shell. These magnificent creatures were once found on most of the islands in the archipelago but now they are much less common. There were fourteen different subspecies divided amongst the islands. When sailors first discovered the area they found the tortoises to be a very convenient food supply. They discovered that these huge creatures would stay alive for up to a year upside down, with no food or water, in the hold of a ship and their meat didn't taste bad either! Unfortunately for the tortoise!
About 100,000 tortoises became food for sailors. As if that wasn't problem enough, the influx of people bought with them many new invasive species such as goats, pigs, donkeys, dogs and rats. All these animals either competed directly with the tortoises for vegetation or feasted on the eggs and hatchlings. Today there are few places to view these gentle giants in their natural environment, one of the best places being in the highlands of Santa Cruz. Unfortunately Santa Cruz is one of the most densely populated islands and it was very apparent as we drove up into the highlands that development was encroaching at an alarmingly fast speed. Even after we had supposedly entered the national park there were new buildings being constructed everywhere and lots of cattle grazing too! That being said, nothing quite prepared me for my first encounter with one of these behemoths. It is impossible to describe just how imposing they are when finally encountered. Also, without getting too graphic, their feces were super huge! It took me a while to realise that they actually came from the tortoise and not from a camel or something! The one in this picture was another character who seemingly couldn't get enough of being a star and posing for pictures. He also obliged by munching up some fruits for us too.
I could have spent hours just following these beautiful animals around the woodland, there was an amazing feeling of age and wisdom about them as if they had seen so much in their quiet, unimposing way. Occasionally I wish I could be a real life Doctor Doolittle and communicate with animals on their terms. This was most definitely one of those occasions. I do feel hugely privileged to have seen the Giant Tortoise in its natural environment and although I have not painted a very rosy picture of their status on earth there is hope for them.
Our next stop was the Charles Darwin Research Center, home of the most famous Galapagos Tortoise, Lonesome George. Lonesome George is the last of his particular subspecies Geochelone abingdoni who lives with two female tortoises whom he refuses to have anything to do with at all! Apparently this was a common theme as he avoided us pretty well too and stayed in the farthest corner of his enclosure! The second most famous (or perhaps in this case, most infamous) tortoise at the center is Diego (so named because he came from San Diego Zoo!) He lives with eleven females and he mates with all of them as and when........ (Does this sound similar to my posting about Harrison?) Diego is a Saddleback Tortoise Geochelone hoodensis a subspecies that was in serious jeopardy at one time. Thanks to an extremely successful breeding programme carried out at the center, over a thousand of this subspecies have been bred and returned to their original island, Espanola. I am sure Diego contributed greatly to this particular breeding program! As you can see from this picture the saddleback has quite a unique look. The shell shape developed because these individuals needed to be able to reach up to higher vegetation and obviously the shell restricted this movement.
As you will have seen from a previous posting, I am involved with a turtle headstarting program at work so imagine my delight when I was able to see a headstarting program on a huge scale with several of the eleven remaining subspecies of Galapagos Tortoises. There were numerous pens with dozens and dozens of mini tortoises, divided up by subspecies. They were quite irresistible and the urge to take one home was very strong! Luckily I resisted the temptation and so did not end up in an Ecuadorian jail! The hatchlings are kept for the first five years and then released. The headstarting programme has been hugely successful and several hundred individuals of various subspecies have been reintroduced to their respective islands in recent years. So hopefully in future years there will be healthy populations of Galapagos Tortoises on many of the islands.

Photo Credits - Dominick V

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