Land of Giants
Perhaps the most well‑known species of the Galápagos is the giant tortoise.
Each species is “built” to survive on its island. Tortoises with domed shells live in highlands with fertile pastures. The shape of their shell keeps them from raising their heads high. So, they need to find food close to the ground.
Other tortoises have shells that curve upward at the front. They live on islands with less vegetation. They can reach for food that’s higher off the ground.
Sadly, one of the tortoise’s best adaptations became a cause of its decline. Giant tortoises can survive for nearly a year without food or water. So, sailors and whalers collected them to have fresh meat to eat on long trips. Tortoises were also exploited for their fat, used in lamps. About 200,000 tortoises were killed for these reasons. In 1959, the Galápagos National Park was created. Soon after, the Tortoise Breeding Center on Santa Cruz was established.
The Tortoise Breeding Center took a big step to slow the loss of giant tortoises. They began raising captive tortoises. Once they’re large enough to be safe, the center reintroduces them into the wild. By the end of 2017, more than 7,000 young tortoises were returned to their islands.
The center also wants to bring tortoises back to islands where they’ve gone extinct. This happened on two islands in the mid‑1800s. And in 2012, with the death of Lonesome George.
Who Was Lonesome George?
The Pinta Island tortoise was extinct. No one had seen one since 1906. Then in 1971, a scientist discovered one by accident. That tortoise was Lonesome George. George was moved to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz. He lived there for 40 years. He was about 100 when he died. By then, George had become a symbol for conservation everywhere.