The Tortoise and The Hare (minus the hare)

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Yesterday I had the pleasure of briefly revisiting a trip I made to the Galapagos Islands more than a decade ago courtesy of the San Francisco Zoo. They sponsored a talk by the Galapagos Conservancy, a non-profit organization which promotes conservation of these unique islands.

Sitting 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos are a treasure trove of life thanks to the cold enriched waters of the Humboldt Current. It was these islands which inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. (If you enjoy non-fiction, Darwin’s travels are chronicled in “The Voyage of the Beagle.” And, if you like movies, be sure to catch Russell Crowe in “Master and Commander – the Far Side of the World” parts of which were filmed in Galapagos.)

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Many things have changed since I had the pleasure of visiting, like the increase in the resident human population. Despite its remoteness, Ecuadorians can earn a higher standard of living than in much of mainland Ecuador, largely due to tourism – which is another huge impactor. Ecuador is working to regulate both and keep them sustainable.

The animals have seen drastic change as well, both good and bad. The long term project to restore the populations of giant tortoises on each island is going well (each island is home to a genetically distinct sub-species of tortoise). The eradication of invasive (introduced) species, like goats – which destroy the vegetation the tortoises feed on – has been declared successful on Pinta, Espanola, Floreana, Santa Fe, Santiago, and most of Isabela (the largest island).

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On the other hand, a recent die-off of many marine iguanas has scientists worried. They are already investigating a decline in the Blue Footed Booby population. Though not endemic to the Galapagos – they are found elsewhere – this bird with its baby blue feet and comical mating dance is one of the islands many icons. And sadly, the most well-known icon, Lonesome George – the last surviving Pinta tortoise – was found dead on June 24, 2012, at the age of 100+. Read that line again. He was the LAST Pinta tortoise. They are now extinct.

I’m glad to have been able to see Lonesome George, yet sad others will not have the same pleasure. For safety reasons, George was kept at the research station (also for breeding with females of related sub-species, which was unsuccessful). It is sobering to stand at the edge of the tortoise pen and know that you are looking at the most unique creature you will likely ever encounter, the truest one of a kind to be found.

But not all is lost. Researchers continue their work to breed and release more tortoises to their native islands. And recently – and astonishingly – some hybrid tortoises have been discovered on Isabela’s Wolf Volcano who carry Pinta genes. So there is hope that Pinta can be re-populated with near relatives, although there will never again be another true Pinta tortoise. (If you’re wondering why one island’s tortoises would be found on another island, you can thank the sailors and whalers of yore. It’s well-known they captured and transported tortoises as a source of meat.)

Perhaps the next time I go, I’ll be able to see tortoises slowly lumbering through the scrubby brush on Pinta. And the marine iguanas, with their white salty snot coating their faces, will still be there.Image (They are the only lizard in the world which feeds underwater.)

Yes, of course I want to return. True, there are so many other places I want to visit as I’ve mentioned in other blogs. But the Galapagos are unique. And I have a thing for islands.

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