By Wacho Tapia, Director of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative
During the 29 years I have dedicated to the conservation of the Galapagos Islands and their giant tortoises, I have had the opportunity to participate in many exciting events, including the identification and subsequent description of a new tortoise species. But the emotional high I experienced as a participant in perhaps the most important find of the century — a live tortoise on Fernandina Island — is indescribable. I know that my expedition colleagues, Galapagos National Park rangers Jeffreys Málaga, Eduardo Vilema, Roberto Ballesteros, and Simón Villamar, and the Animal Planet team led by Forrest Galante, were just as exhilarated.
Prior to this discovery, only one specimen of the Fernandina tortoise Chelonoidis phantasticus had ever been found — a male tortoise collected during the California Academy of Sciences expedition in 1905-06. In February 2019, we found a female tortoise that was likely alive when the other tortoise was found, some 112 years ago.
When Animal Planet contacted me in October 2018 regarding a potential trip to Fernandina to shoot an episode of the series “Extinct or Alive,” I was interested. For the last five years, we have been trying to get funding for a mega-expedition to search for giant tortoises all over the island. I indicated my interest in the endeavor, but also made it clear that the possibility of finding a tortoise was near zero.
Animal Planet obtained the necessary permit from the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD), and their team arrived in February 2019 for a five-day expedition to film a search for tortoises on Fernandina. We began at the site where GNPD ranger Jeffreys Málaga and Charles Darwin Foundation researcher Patricia Jaramillo found tortoise scat in 2015.
I must admit that, like most people, I had been convinced that the Fernandina tortoise was extinct until their discovery in 2015. However, when Jeffreys — a very skilled ranger and part of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative — assured me that what they found was unquestionably tortoise scat, I became convinced that at least one living tortoise remained on the island.
That discovery pushed the GTRI team to plan for an exhaustive search across the island as soon as the funding could be secured. This mega-expedition would be one of the more difficult scientific expeditions in the world, as Fernandina is a large, very young island, with more than 60% of its surface formed by recent a’a lava fields that are nearly impossible to cross.
Our trip to Fernandina with Forrest and the Animal Planet team would provide more than just filming for a documentary. It gave me the opportunity to make an exploratory visit to better plan the mega-expedition in situ. To temper any false expectations, I explained once again that I was not optimistic; even if a tortoise or more still lived on the island, we would most likely not find one, as the trip was short and the search team small. However, it was an opportunity not to be wasted.
Once we arrived on Fernandina, we set up camp near where Jeffreys had found the tortoise scat four years before. During the first two days of extensive searching, we found traces of a tortoise — probably female — and some dry scat, but no tortoise. On the third day we moved on to several patches of vegetation toward the south, all of which were surrounded by a’a lava flows.
We started early in the morning. In the first three green patches, we only encountered land iguanas, so we decided to cross a huge lava flow to reach a patch of vegetation we could see in the distance. Upon arriving there, we immediately found tortoise scat, and then the “bed” where a tortoise had slept — perhaps as recently as the night before.
While Forrest and his team filmed this, we heard Jeffreys cry: “Wacho – Tortuga!” I felt hope and excitement bubble up in me. We ran to Jeffreys, where we saw a living female tortoise resting in a small space between rocks and vegetation. We all felt an indescribable emotion: this was the first tortoise found on Fernandina in more than 100 years! And she was alive and well.
With permission from the Galapagos National Park Director, we carefully transported the tortoise to the Tortoise Center on Santa Cruz, where we began studying her diet (from the feces we collected on the island and those we obtained in her corral) and her behavior. This adult female is very old and quite small (approximately 55 cm long; less than 2 feet). She likes to eat cactus as well as other plant species, and is healthy and very active each morning.
Blood samples from this tortoise will be shipped to Yale University, where genetic analysis will confirm whether this old female is a true Chelonoidis phantasticus, as soon as we obtain the export permit.
In addition to the immediate surge of emotions at this monumental discovery, I now have hope that more tortoises exist in other parts of the island that have similar conditions to our search area. Galapagos Conservancy is currently fundraising in support of a mega-expedition and I hope to return soon.
Washington (Wacho) Tapia has served as the Galapagos-based Director of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative since 2014. He coordinates and leads all GTRI fieldwork and plays a vital role in ecosystem conservation work in Galapagos. His work involves constant collaboration with the Galapagos National Park Directorate.
All photos © GTRI.