If you’ve been to Galapagos, you must have seen at least one Galapagos giant tortoise lumbering along, its wise old face looking gently at its surroundings. These tortoises are so iconic in Galapagos that the Islands are named after them – Galápago is an old Spanish word for tortoise – and they even feature on our logo!
The tortoises you see today, however, are the lucky ones. Their populations, although now stabilising, were devastated historically by pirates and whalers who discovered that tortoises were a key, and relatively easy, source of food on the Islands. After two centuries of exploitation, it is thought that between 100,000 and 200,000 tortoises were lost and, on some islands, species were driven to extinction.
Although no longer killed by humans for their meat, tortoises today still struggle to survive. Every effort is being made to conserve these gentle giants, but we still have so much to learn about them – which is hard to believe, we know!
Without increased knowledge, we can’t protect them from the threats they face. And we need your help.
All of the Galapagos giant tortoise species alive today are under threat and are on the IUCN Red List – they range from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered. One of them, the Eastern Santa Cruz giant tortoise (Chelonoidis donfaustoi) was, just last year, found to be Critically Endangered. It is thought that before the 19th century, there were probably 13,500 of these tortoises. Now there are only 400. That’s a population decrease of 97%.
One of the key threats facing all Galapagos giant tortoises across the Archipelago, and especially those on Santa Cruz, is introduced predators, such as feral pigs which find tortoise eggs irresistible. Tortoise hatchlings, which are almost impossible to find due to their tiny size, are threatened by a number of non-native species including rats, cats, dogs and fire ants. By investing in nest protection, and new technologies such as the latest satellite tags, we can track hatchlings and have a chance to protect this most vulnerable life stage of the tortoises.
On the inhabited islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Isabela, giant tortoises face an additional threat – human activity. If you’ve been to Santa Cruz, you’ll have been on the highway that crosses the island, and you’ll know how fast people drive along it! The highway, along with other roads, buildings and fences around agricultural land are disturbing the ancient routes of tortoises. If they cannot follow their migration routes, then tortoises may struggle to find food, mates or the best nesting grounds, ultimately affecting the population’s ability to survive. There is also the possibility that tortoise health may be affected by farm animals such as cows and horses, which could have worrying implications.
With a growing human population in Galapagos, this will become increasingly common. But you can help us do something about it now.
We’ve been working with scientists to try and improve our understanding of how tortoises are coping with these threats from eggs to adults, and how we can help to protect them.
A gift of £50 could help us to protect a giant tortoise nest from feral pigs during the nesting season. £580 could allow us to buy a satellite tag that will help us to better understand the lives of hatchlings.
Will you help us to ensure that these ancient giants can continue to roam Galapagos for generations to come?