Unraveling the Mysteries of the Darwin Volcano Tortoises, Part I

December 4, 2019

By Wacho Tapia, Director of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative. Leer en español.

Darwin tortoise

I do not consider myself an expert; just a humble biologist trying to contribute to the sustainability of my home — the Galapagos archipelago. Over the last ten years, a frequent undertaking for me has been to organize and lead large scientific expeditions focusing on the search for giant tortoises. These expeditions are large both in terms of the number of people participating and in the area that is covered during each. Despite organizing many such expeditions, one has remained that has become almost a utopia in my mind due to the difficult and remote terrain, costly nature of working there, and the fact that we have very little knowledge of the tortoise population nor the site itself. This mystery is the giant tortoises of Darwin Volcano on northern Isabela Island.

Since the middle of the last century, several scientists have visited Darwin Volcano for various reasons — all using the same path (locally known as a “pica”) from Tagus Cove to the summit due to the great difficulty of walking between dense and thorny vegetation and rugged lava fields. In just a few hours of walking, even in the most expensive boots, they end up destroyed. This is without factoring in the exhaustion for any human to work in the difficult conditions associated with the intense equatorial sun. There are also ticks; although they prefer the tortoises, they latch onto humans as well.

Lava terrain on Darwi

Rough lava terrain on Darwin

Destroyed hiking boots

A pair of hiking boots destroyed by rough lava in Galapagos

Our challenge for this expedition to Darwin was to survey the entire area of the volcano that was covered by any type of vegetation and, as such, might host tortoises. We had invaluable help from satellite images and aerial photographs, which was very useful in designing an elegant plan, at least in theory. As are usually all the plans on paper!

After an intense and well-detailed preparation, and with the help of a helicopter, 30 park rangers and scientists willing to give their best effort were deployed across the volcano. Once on their designated sites, each group looked for the best place to establish an improvised camp, which would be their home for the next 10 days. It was then that we went from elegant planning to fieldwork reality.

Darwin tortoise search map

Detailed planning map of Darwin for the search for tortoises

For example, in my case I choose on the basis of my curiosity to explore new places, but especially with the purpose of being in a place where it was supposed to have permanent (radio) communication with all groups — the quadrant located on the volcanos summit. On the map, this circular summit area was quite long sand narrow and seemed flat. However, the small detail that we did not take into account during the planning was that the maps are made in only two dimensions. So when we arrived at the site, we found that once the jaggedness of the area was considered it was in fact a much larger, longer and more complex zone than expected, and it was not possible to have fluid communication with the other groups. Not only that, we had to walk 25 km on average daily, over rugged lava fields and forests of very dense vegetation, but also up and down very steep slopes.

Not having good communication made me extremely tense. Not knowing the terrain of this remote volcano and not knowing what each group was going to find, I was worried about what was happening.

It was not until our fourth day when we were on the southern extreme of our zone that we managed to get communication with the other groups. We found out, for example, that the group assigned to one of the most difficult areas with little vegetation and where there were supposed to be few tortoises had found so many that the microchips had already run out for permanent marking. Working with ordinary people, this problem would have meant paralysis of the work program and census failure. However, the expertise, resourcefulness and extreme physical ability of the park rangers had already surfaced. Having already established communication with the other groups, they coordinated in the same way in which “chasquis” or messengers who used to cross the “Inca Trail.”

Regardless of the distance or the difficult terrain, let alone the inclement sun and the limited amount of water to hydrate, the park guards had traveled many kilometers to obtain microchips from those groups that did not have many tortoises, sharing and distributing them as needed, to assure we were able to meet our objectives for the expedition.

Park ranger with Darwin tortoise

A Park ranger collects data on a Darwin Volcano tortoise

We had not visited the volcano since 2002 when there were still goats all over it.  At that time the presence of goats was very evident, not only because they were easy to spot but because the vegetation was completely open due to the voracious appetite of the goats. What we found now, a little more than 10 years after their eradication from Darwin Volcano, was an elixir for the soul of the biologist: the ecosystem was recovered and the forests again dense, just as they were before the goat invasion. All the ecological processes in full development yet again.

In addition to the sporadic presence of ticks and cats, both invasive species, the only bad and ugly event during this expedition occurred at 1450 meters above sea level, at the highest site of the volcano, when we bumped into the unpleasant presence of a balloon. It was a star-shaped balloon, of the type inflated with helium and used for parties. I don’t know if the balloon got there from any of the populated ports (the closest one is almost 100 km away), or more likely from a boat sailing in the surroundings and where they had a party.

This is the sort of object a tortoises, always full of curiosity at new things, would try to eat, and it would do the tortoise harm. The truth is that it was a clear example of how humans can pollute, even without ever visiting a site. Hopefully, we humans are changing our attitudes and behaviors.


Wacho TapiaWacho Tapia is the Director of the GTRI and a Galapagos native and reptile expert with decades of field experience. Wacho previously led the science program and technical group at the Galapagos National Park Directorate for 15 years. a

All photos © Wacho Tapia / GTRI.

Read more about the expedition team’s findings on Darwin Volcano




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