The three major threats to the giant tortoise populations, namely invasive species, urbanisation and land-use changes, all stem from anthropogenic causes. Only through a human understanding of the ecological needs of the tortoises can landscape planning successfully conserve their numbers. The Galapagos Tortoise Movement Ecology Programme (GTMEP), led by Dr Stephen Blake, addresses this need to better mitigate the symbiosis between animal and human through determining the spatial needs of these tortoises, assessing changes in tortoise populations over time and looking at the extent to which their health is being impacted by human activity.
Behavioural observations and tracking tags identify the migration of four distinct tortoise species; two on Santa Cruz and one on both Isabela and Espanola. Worryingly, researchers have found that Galapagos giant tortoises are unlikely to be able to adapt their seasonal migrations in the face of environmental change, with females on Santa Cruz using the same migration routes each year to return to their same nests.
The tagging of over 50 hatchlings with very high-frequency (VHF) radios on Santa Cruz has also linked high non-natural mortality rate with those born in the middle zones of elevation, due to the presence of human-introduced invasive species, such as pigs. This indicates a relationship between human activity and poor tortoise health, which can inform future management strategies to protect tortoises.
Alongside this, outreach programmes have been significant in establishing better human-tortoise relationships, particularly amongst landowners on Santa Cruz. The local NGO Ecology project International’s ‘Mola Mola’ youth club have looked into the program’s costs, benefits and risks, and more importantly, potential solutions, e.g. reducing farmland fencing to avoid interrupting migration routes.
To find out more about the project, please visit our blog for project updates.
How you can help
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.
This work has been made possible thanks to the support of GCT members as well as generous grants from the Woodspring Trust and British Chelonia Group .