I sit in my compound and stare in awe…..I’ve never seen such a large creature before…..His shell is enormous, look at those feet…..He seems to do little but eat and sleep…..I arrived at the zoo without much of ado…..I had been left to roam in my rundown home…..When found by the new owners, they did not want me…..Their garden was ‘without’ pets to be.
So here I am with cousins galore…..All slightly different and live next door…..To great Uncle Galapagos, a giant so old…..I listen with interest as I am told…..How his family was discovered in 1535…..By Spanish seaman seeking to survive…..a great storm, with waves so high…..and mighty winds, they thought they would die.
Blown off course, they knew not where…..They searched for land; “look over there…..land ahoy”; a sailor cried…..A group of islands they had spied…..Rocky like Volcanoes, with no beach…..These islands west of Ecuador were hard to reach…..But these weary men were easy to please…..And grateful these islands stood up out of the seas.
Happy to land upon the shore…..A great surprise was in store…..Amongst the rocks they were to find…..Tortoise of a special kind…..“Great Uncle” I asked, “did these men bring you here?”…..Great Uncle Galapagos seemed to shed a tear…..“Yes in a way” he said wiping his eye…..“Come closer Hermann, I’ll explain how and why”.
I get close to the netting and so does he…..He looks enormous against little me…..“These men were hungry, seeking a meal…..so some of our family to eat they did steal”…..I gasp in horror – just at the thought…..Then ask “Great Uncle, were a lot caught?”…..“Oh yes, dear Hermann, many I fear…..To save the species, they brought me here.”
“We enjoyed a quiet life, not rushed, just plain slow…..Sleeping 16 hours a day, for 8 hours on the go…..is quite enough, even when you are young…..and weighing up to a quarter of a ton…..But once the seaman left our shores…..Pirates and Whalers came looking for more…..Tortoise for food, and Whalers for oil…..Leaving their animals our lives to spoil.
These dogs, cats and pigs they left behind…..ate all of our eggs and plants they could find…..Our favourite food, it was fresh young grass…..When this became scarce, we ate Opuntia cactus…..Not needing much water to keep us alive…..sucking dew off the plants helped us to survive…..There were fifteen different species of us around…..Four no longer exist, just eleven now are found.
As we cannot generate our own body heat…..we would climb the volcano, rugged and steep…..to warm our bodies from the heat of the stones…..we have no central heating to warm our bones…..If we get too hot during the day…..In a lovely mud bath we would lay…..And our friends the finches would wait near by…..And when we were ready, we’d stand up high
Upon our legs, our necks outstretched…..The sign that they could come and fetch…..From off our skin, ticks and parasites…..It kept us clean, gave them tasty delights.”…..Hermann was quiet, what a shame he thought…..From this lovely life Uncle had been brought…..to laze around this giant pen…..never to see his island home again.
“Will you go back?” Hermann enquired…..“No not me, I’m too old and tired…..But younger tortoise are being bred…..And when old enough they will go instead…..Our babies come from eggs no bigger than a chicken’s…..Born with soft shells, they are easy pickings…..For crabs and birds to feed upon…..So to breed them here protects them, my son”
Said Uncle Galapagos, his reply rather slow…..Hermann was sure Uncle would like to go…..Back to the island; visit his home…..Once more over the volcano to roam…..A wistful look in his eye…..Hermann felt sure he wanted to cry…..But he blinked his eyes, gave a little cough…..”Well, my lad – that’s enough
Of dwelling on what might have been…..The folk here are kind. Oh! Have you seen…..From Charles Darwin Research Station…..New arrivals to learn about the location…..Of the Island where they eventually will live…..You see, that’s my job, information to give…..to them, so they can to the island return…..to set up home amongst the rocks and fern.
A strong colony of tortoise to produce…..Then I will feel I’ve been of use…..in replenishing our species so it will not vanish…..as it almost did at the hands of the Spanish.”…..Gazing at Uncle Galapagos, this giant so old…..I’m glad I’ve listened to the story he told…..I now know how and perhaps why he survived…..He accepted his fate and undertakes it with pride!
©Sue Bird. Reproduced by kind permission.