Land of Giants
Perhaps the most well‑known species of the Galápagos is the giant tortoise. In Darwin’s time, some 15 species existed. Today, 11 species remain.
Each species is suited to survive on its island. Those with domed shells can be found in highlands with fertile pastures. Their shell shape keeps them from raising their heads high. So, they need to find food close to the ground.
Those with saddleback shells—or shells with an upward curve at the front—can more freely stretch their necks. They live on islands with sparse vegetation. Their shell shape allows them to reach for food that’s higher off the ground.
Sadly, one of the tortoise’s greatest adaptations became a cause of its steady decline. Giant tortoises can survive for nearly a year without food or water. Sailors and whalers would collect them from the islands to have fresh meat to eat on long voyages. Tortoises were also exploited for their fat, which was used in lamps. As many as 200,000 tortoises were killed for these purposes for two centuries. Those that survived on the islands were subject to predators.
In 1959, the Galápagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation were created. Soon after, the Tortoise Breeding Center on Santa Cruz was established.
To slow the loss of giant tortoises, the Tortoise Breeding Center began raising captive tortoises. Once they’ve grown large enough that predators won’t pose a danger, the center introduces them into the wild. By the end of 2017, more than 7,000 young tortoises were returned to their island of origin.
One goal is to repopulate the islands where tortoises have gone extinct. This happened on Floreana and Santa Fe in the mid‑1800s and on Pinta Island in 2012, with the death of Lonesome George. Today, Santa Cruz and Isabela have the largest population of giant tortoises. Their numbers continue to grow.
Who Was Lonesome George?
The Pinta Island tortoise was extinct. That was a fact. No one had seen one on the island since 1906. Then in 1971, a scientist discovered one by accident. That tortoise was Lonesome George, one of the rarest creatures in the world. George was moved to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz and lived there for 40 years. He was about 100 years old when he died. The world felt his loss. George had become an important symbol for conservation everywhere.