Magazine article Geographical

Flying Tortoises: An Airborne Reintroduction Programme Has Helped Conservationists Take Significant Steps to Protect the Endangered Galapagos Tortoise

Magazine article Geographical

Flying Tortoises: An Airborne Reintroduction Programme Has Helped Conservationists Take Significant Steps to Protect the Endangered Galapagos Tortoise

Article excerpt

Forests of spiny cacti cover much of the uneven lava plains that separate the interior of the Galapagos island of Isabela from the Pacific Ocean. With its five distinct volcanoes, the island resembles a lunar landscape, only the thick vegetation at the skirt of the often cloud-covered peak of Sierra Negra offers respite from the barren terrain below.

This inhospitable environment is home to the giant Galapagos tortoise. Some time after the Galapagos's birth, around five million years ago, the islands were colonised by one or more tortoises from mainland South America. As these ancestral tortoises settled on the individual islands, the different populations adapted to their unique environments, giving rise to at least 14 different subspecies.

Island life agreed with them. In the absence of significant predators, they grew to become the largest and longest-living tortoises on the planet, weighing more than 400 kilograms, occasionally exceeding 1.8 metres in length and living for more than a century (captive individuals have been known to reach 170 years).

Before human arrival, the archipelago's tortoise population numbered in the hundreds of thousands. During the 17th century, pirates took a few on board for food, but the arrival of whalers and fur-sealers after the 1790s saw this exploitation grow exponentially. Relatively immobile and capable of surviving for months without food or water, the tortoises were taken on board ships to act as food supplies during long ocean passages. Later, their bodies were processed into high-grade oil.

In total, an estimated 200,000 animals were taken from the archipelago before the 20th century. This historical exploitation was then exacerbated by hunting by settlers on the islands, habitat destruction for agriculture and the introduction of alien species--ranging from cattle, pigs, goats, rats and dogs to plants and ants--that either prey on the eggs and young tortoises or damage or destroy their habitat.

TIME IS ONE OF THE ESSENCE

Today. only 11 of the original subspecies survive and of these, several are highly endangered. In 1989, work began on a tortoise-breeding centre just outside the town of Puerto Villamil on Isabela, dedicated to protecting the island's tortoise populations. The centre's captive-breeding programme proved to be extremely successful, and it eventually had to deal with an overpopulation problem. …

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