By Ellie Graves, GCT volunteer.
As with everyone worldwide, the Galapagos Tortoise Movement Ecology Programme (GTMEP) has been greatly affected by COVID-19, with three-month quarantine restrictions halting fieldwork, outreach and conservation plans at the beginning of the year. That being said, the dedication of the GTMEP team has meant that 2020 has still seen many steps taken, including the addition of a new local Principal Investigator, Jorge Carrion, previously Director of the Galapagos National Park (GNP).
Investigating the Relationships Between the Galapagos Giant Tortoise and Humans
A key objective of GTMEP is to gain a full understanding of the impacts of human activities on tortoise health and behaviour. As reported in a previous GTMEP update blog post, this includes the work of PhD student and veterinarian Dr Ainoa Nieto. Ainoa is aiming to determine the overall health of tortoises on Santa Cruz, where their natural migration routes overlap with human-modified landscapes and compare this to the health of tortoises on the Alcedo Volcano in Isabela, where they rarely come into contact with humans. Currently, five papers from her research are in preparation for publishing.
PhD candidate Kyana Pike is similarly investigating human effects on the Galapagos giant tortoise by studying the extent to which tortoises utilise farmland. Previously, tortoises in Galapagos were threatened by intense hunting, and any tortoise trespassing through farms was killed. Now, hunting has been made illegal, and the relationship between farmers and tortoises has changed. Farmers now see the species as an economic opportunity for tourism. As the economy of Galapagos increases, however, and the pressure for food production grows with it, research into the relationships between the Galapagos giant tortoise and agricultural land is essential to establish strategies to harmonise land development with tortoise conservation objectives.
To find out how much time and space tortoises are utilising in the agricultural areas of Santa Cruz, Dr Kyana Pike has looked at tracking data of 45 tortoises collected over nine years. She has found that tortoises are present on private land year-round, with the majority visiting between August and February. She has also used GPS movement data of 20 tortoises from 2014 to 2020 to look at the influence of infrastructure on tortoise movement and habitat selection. This has shown evidence that fencing associated with crop farms reduces tortoise movement across crop-related areas. Although these fences do not deter them completely, the intensification of agriculture and an increase in the associated infrastructure like this threatens tortoise migration routes.
Opportunity for New Projects
The absence of tourism to the Galapagos Islands throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed the GTMEP team to investigate the effects of tourism on the Galapagos giant tortoise. Specifically, they are looking into the impacts of human presence within farms visited by tourists on tortoise behaviour and stress by analysing stress hormones in the species’ faeces and observing their behaviour.
The Release of Diego
Another exciting update is that before lockdown, GTMEP scientists assisted the Galapagos National Park and Galapagos Conservancy with health assessments of Española tortoises at the Santa Cruz breeding centre. They wanted to ensure a safe return into the wild for 15 tortoises including Diego, the Galapagos giant tortoise who is credited for fathering over 900 offspring and helping increase the wild tortoise population on Española to over 2,000. After their assessment (supported by UDLA University in Quito) confirmed an absence of threatening viruses, and a three-month quarantine, all 15 tortoises were successfully released on Española in June.
This program is a multi-institutional collaboration among the Charles Darwin Foundation, the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology, the Galapagos National Park, Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine, the Houston Zoo and Galapagos Conservation Trust.