Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative Update: Review of Galapagos Tortoise Breeding and Rearing Centers
Two weeks of tortoises — can it get any better than that? One of the recommendations that came out of the international Tortoise Planning Workshop in 2012 was to complete annual reviews of all Tortoise Breeding and Rearing Centers in Galapagos — looking at tortoise health, data collection, infrastructure, and everything that goes into ensuring healthy young tortoises to rebuild the more threatened tortoise populations of Galapagos. After 2 weeks of tortoises, the first annual review is complete. All that’s left is writing the reports!
I arrived in Galapagos at the start of November along with Dr. Joe Flanagan of the Houston Zoo, who has worked with GC off-and-on for more than a decade. Joe and I were then joined by Wacho Tapia (Director of Galapagos Conservancy’s Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative) and several of the Galapagos National Park rangers who work in the Centers. We were especially lucky to have Fausto Llerena with us on the entire trip, as his experience and knowledge is far beyond the rest of us when it comes to raising tortoises.
We traveled by boat from Puerto Ayora to San Cristóbal and spent 3 days at the Tortoise Center there. It was my first visit, as the Center was opened in 2003; several years after I left the Charles Darwin Research Station. From there, we traveled by small plane to Isabela for 4 days of intensive work, and finally another boat trip back to Santa Cruz for 3 days at that Tortoise Center. Most of the group also did a 1-day trip to Floreana to check the health status of the tortoises in the corral adjacent to Asilo de la Paz, the National Park visitor site in the highlands.
While Wacho and I discussed data collection, personnel, budget, infrastructure, and equipment with the lead park ranger at each Center, Joe along with Andrea Loyola — the new veterinarian for the Galapagos National Park — and the rest of the team examined all adult tortoises and half of the young, one by one. This type of health review has never been done at this scale. It was definitely the most time-consuming part of the work, but Joe and his team moved steadily from corral to corral, examining tortoise after tortoise.
When we arrived at the Tortoise Center on Isabela, I encountered the biggest success story, at least for me. I had helped design the Isabela Tortoise Center in 1988-89 and was there again in 1994 when they helicoptered a few adult tortoises in from Cerro Paloma, the sub-population of most concern in all of southern Isabela. Cerro Paloma tortoises live on the western slope of Sierra Negra. By the early 1990s, the population was close to disappearing. Eventually ten adult tortoises were found to form the Cerro Paloma breeding group, and today the Center abounds with hundreds of their offspring. I couldn’t stop smiling as I walked around the corrals, remembering when there were only a few left.
Even the signs at the Centers brought back memories. The Reproduction Laboratory on San Cristóbal where they incubate the tortoise eggs is named for Jacinto Gordillo, who I worked with many years back on Isabela. The Center on Isabela is named for Arnaldo Tupiza, a long-term employee of both the National Park and the Charles Darwin Research Station. Back in 1988, Don Arnaldo and I walked the woods where the Tortoise Center now stands to select the best location. Sadly, he died in a motorcycle accident not many years later. On Santa Cruz, the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center honors my good friend and colleague who has dedicated his life to raising these majestic creatures.
At all the Centers, we encountered hundreds of healthy tortoises and a few with injuries and other problems, most of which we hope to fix by improving the diet and providing more sunlight. We identified several areas for improving the overall program, including data management, infrastructure maintenance, tortoise feeding, etc.
I most enjoyed spending time with Fausto and the other park rangers, many of whom I did not know well prior to this trip. I can’t imagine a more dedicated group of people, all of whom are truly passionate about the tortoises and the work they are doing. It was a joy to watch them interact, sharing their experiences on the different islands and their ideas for improving the work.
Two full weeks of tortoises, memories, and new plans for improving the Tortoise Centers in the future. Can it get any better than that?
Dr. Linda Cayot is GC’s Science Advisor and has played an important role in Galapagos conservation efforts for more than 30 years.