By Elizabeth Hunter, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Nevada, Reno and contributor to tortoise conservation efforts in Galapagos.
In late July, I traveled to Quito, Ecuador, for the 11th Latin American Congress of Herpetology. I wouldn’t normally travel such a long distance for a conference, but the invitation to participate in a half-day symposium organized by Galapagos Conservancy’s Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI) team was too good to pass up. Many of us who conduct research on giant tortoises are spread around the world, and this was a great chance to get caught up on each other’s work and make plans for the future.
The city of Quito is perched high in the Andes, at 9,350 feet in elevation, but there are even higher peaks surrounding it. A few symposium participants experienced elevation sickness due to the thin air — luckily, I was spared that coming from the moderate elevation of Reno, Nevada.
Arriving earlier than some of the symposium participants I knew well gave me a chance to interact with undergraduate and graduate students who have been doing wonderful work on giant tortoises in Galapagos. I was impressed both with the rigor of their research and with their patience with my poor Spanish! Spending time with Jennifer Vásconez, Carlos Cano, and Gabriela Sevillano was a highlight — both Jennifer and Carlos have described their work on this blog.
During the tortoise symposium, along with the student presentations, we heard from many of the world experts on Galapagos giant tortoises. James Gibbs presented an overview of the ecological role of tortoises in Galapagos ecosystems and showed us interesting new results from exclosure experiments on Española Island. Keeping tortoises out of defined areas for multiple years helps to demonstrate the substantial impact they have when they are present, and provides useful information on the time and number of tortoises needed to restore ecosystems where tortoise populations are extinct or greatly reduced.
Gisella Caccone presented an overview of what genetic tools have taught us about the evolutionary history of giant tortoises, and how these tools are helping us to bring back populations from the brink of extinction. Victor Carrión, of Island Conservation, spoke about eradication efforts throughout Galapagos, many of which are crucial for the resurgence of tortoise populations. Future planned eradications on Floreana will help prepare the island for the return of tortoises. And Wacho Tapia gave a wonderful overview of the conservation status of all the species and populations on the Islands and the current updating of Galapagos tortoise species status on the IUCN Red List.
For my part, I talked about work I am currently doing with my postdoctoral advisor, Kevin Shoemaker, at the University of Nevada Reno. Together with James, Gisella, and Wacho, we have created a simulation model to help make decisions about how best to restore tortoise populations on Floreana Island through a captive breeding and release program. This is the next step in the long sequence of decisions and actions taken by the GTRI team and their many collaborators, beginning with the expeditions to Wolf Volcano, the collection of tortoises, genetic analyses, and the initiation of a breeding program for Floreana. The modeling will help in future management decisions of the Galapagos National Park Directorate, such as the best age to release juveniles and the number and grouping of breeders in captivity. Our model results will help show how these management actions will affect different objectives associated with the reintroduction of tortoises (including population growth, genetic diversity, and recovery of the Floreana genome, among others), as well as provide a cost:benefit analysis of the different scenarios.
I presented my talk in Spanish — a first for me! Although quite nervous, I got through it okay, and it seemed like everyone understood based on the several detailed questions I received afterwards. Despite several non-native Spanish speakers in the symposium, everyone presented in Spanish, which was a demonstration of how committed we all are to making our work approachable and applicable to tortoise management in Ecuador. Danny Rueda, Director of Ecosystem Management for the Galapagos National Park, was also present for the symposium; it was great to have him there to provide a perspective from the Park. Danny met with the GTRI group (James, Gisella, Wacho, and me) following the symposium to discuss Park priorities for tortoise conservation and management.
Meeting in Quito was perfect — it got us away from the day-to-day needs of on-the-ground work in Galapagos and provided a big-picture view (from 9,000 feet!). After the meeting with Danny, James and Gisella reflected that although we had just discussed a long list of things that need to be done, they also had a sense, based on their years of experience, of all that has already been accomplished. All of us working with the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative will continue to move forward — expecting even greater successes to come.
Elizabeth Hunter is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Nevada, Reno. She has been working on Galapagos giant tortoises since 2010, when she completed her MS with James Gibbs on the return of tortoises to Pinta Island.
All photos © Elizabeth Hunter except tortoises brought from Wolf Volcano © Joe Flanagan.