Magazine article International Wildlife

BABY ONE THOUSAND GOES HOME - on Espanola Island in the Galapagos, a Once-Embattled Reptile Reaches a Recovery Milestone

Magazine article International Wildlife

BABY ONE THOUSAND GOES HOME - on Espanola Island in the Galapagos, a Once-Embattled Reptile Reaches a Recovery Milestone

Article excerpt

PARK WARDEN Fausto Llerena proudly shows her off: Cradled in his hands is a tiny tortoise. Her name is Baby One Thousand. Thirty years ago only 14 bedraggled survivors of her kind remained in the wild. Tomorrow she will be the 1,000th captive-bred Galapagos giant tortoise to return to her ancestral island of Espanola in the Galapagos group off Ecuador's coast.

The celebration has already started. Presided over by towering giant Galapagos cacti and chirping Darwin's finches, a crowd gathers for a ceremony in the sweltering equatorial sun. All conversation hushes as the reptilian starlet (everyone refers to the tortoise as "she" although the animal is too young for scientists to be sure of its gender) appears center stage, wildly flailing stubby little tortoise legs. Her very existence is nothing short of a miracle.

Baby One Thousand's story of revival and possibility goes back many millions of years. It all started when a few of her now-extinct ancestors from the desert regions of South America were washed into the Pacific and carried 600 miles by ocean currents to the new volcanic islands of Galapagos. Here they landed and thrived in an environment with no major predators to threaten them.

After further accidents and flash floods, these animals eventually colonized ten different islands, adapting to the prevailing conditions of their new homes in different ways. Eventually these separate populations resulted in 14 distinct types, including 5 that were isolated on separate volcanoes on one single island. The driest and most inhospitable of these tortoise landscapes was southernmost Espanola, which gave rise to the most extraordinary of all giant tortoise races: the Espanola saddleback.

Marooned on an almost-rainless island whose chief characters are endless boulder fields and nearly impenetrable, mostly leafless thorny scrub, these animals became the greyhounds of the tortoise world-in contrast to their huge and rounded cousins on higher islands covered in lush vegetation. Their shells became thin and lightweight, with remarkably flared edges to give maximum mobility to their spindly legs and extremely long necks.

Far from being hampered by their environment, the tortoises on Espanola could stride easily across rugged terrain. Their flexible necks and small heads allowed them to reach into interstices in the lava to drink tiny puddles of drizzle and nip tentative grass blades. Or they could stretch high off the ground for a bite of juicy, dangling cactus pads.

They were so successful that as many as 15,000 of them, it is thought, once lived on the 23-square-mile island. When people first discovered Galapagos in 1535, and later explorers ventured inland in the centuries that followed, it was this tortoise, most likely, that they called galapago. The term is for a flared Spanish saddle, a name later applied to the islands themselves.

Unfortunately for these and other Galapagos tortoises, the very traits that made them such great survivors on desert islands turned into a disastrous liability: Early sailors discovered that the animals could be stowed aboard ship alive without food or water for weeks and months on end, supplying delicious fresh meat during lengthy ocean crossings. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, literally tens, maybe even hundreds, of thousands-from all over Galapagos, especially the smaller islands-saw their demise aboard passing pirate, whaling, sealing, naval and even scientific sailing ships.

At the same time, a bevy of domestic animals-from rats, pigs and dogs to goats and cattle-was released either intentionally or accidentally. These alien creatures promptly multiplied to plague proportions, some preying on the tortoises that remained, others stripping the vegetation cover.

Help first came in 1959, when 97 percent of the total land area of Galapagos was gazetted as Ecuador's first national park-Galapagos National Park-and the international Charles Darwin Foundation was created to provide scientific advice on how to protect the islands' wildlife. …

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