By guest author Dr. Maud Quinzin, evolutionary biologist currently working at Yale University.
When I arrived in Galapagos on February 1, 2017 to work for 3 months with Galapagos Conservancy’s Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI), I had the expected culture shock. However, away from luxury and in a world where water from the tap isn’t drinkable, I adjusted quickly and soon felt at home — spending lots of time with nature, and bargaining the price of fruits and vegetables with locals at the market every Saturday morning.
I discovered how Galapagos is facing its biggest challenge yet — protecting its extraordinary wildlife and ecosystems while facing a significant increase in its human population, along with associated pressures from ever-increasing tourism. Our attraction for the uniqueness of Galapagos may threaten the Islands. However, the grand opening of the Hall of Hope, the Lonesome George exhibit, in February, gave me hope for their future. I was lucky to be GC’s photographer for the event. Past human exploitation and impact on the Islands drove several tortoise species to extinction, including Lonesome George’s species — the Pinta Island tortoise. By telling the story of Lonesome George, this exhibit will educate people on conservation problems and their solutions.
One of the greatest parts of coming to Galapagos was that I finally got to see giant tortoises — up close and personal — and their habitat. I had been studying their genetics for a year, and the only concrete thing I knew was how viscous their blood is. Indeed, I used blood samples to extract the DNA to obtain genetic information on each captive individual. Based on genetic information, I worked with Wacho Tapia and the Galapagos National Park Directorate to redistribute the Española tortoises into three breeding groups to increase genetic diversity in future offspring — which is vital when reintroducing species to the wild. This will be important both for the growing population on Española as well as the repopulation of Santa Fe Island. I hope that these new groups of breeders will do well and will generate lots of offspring.
The feeling of hope I have for all the tortoise groups grew even stronger when I participated in the release of 190 young tortoises on Santa Fe Island in April, during my final week in Galapagos. These young tortoises from the Española breeding program are used to replace the extinct Santa Fe tortoise. We began the release day at 4:45 am, when we loaded up the tortoises and transported them by boat to Santa Fe, while the sun rose. We disembarked under the curious eyes of the local sea lions. After more than an hour’s hike on this gorgeous island covered with Opuntia cactus, we reached the release point and watched the little tortoises walk off into their new home. I wished them luck before heading back to the boat. Although filled with hope, I also pondered how we humans had ended up in this situation, where we needed to “rebuild” nature.
Another great opportunity to see giant tortoises in their natural habitat was when I had the chance to join another field trip — this time to Pinzón Island with a group from Island Conservation, the organization that worked with the Galapagos National Park to eradicate the introduced black rats there. Pinzón is closed to the public and has no infrastructure. Although conditions were extremely harsh, it was an amazing experience: all of the birds, including the hawks, showed no fear and approached us closely. The Park rangers working with us told me I could be a ranger, partly because I was good in the field, but mostly, they said, because I ate even more than they did.
Along my three-month journey in Galapagos, I helped the GTRI team of scientists/advisors, and met GC’s fundraisers and teachers. It was the awakening experience I had hoped for. I witnessed the important link between the work we are doing as scientists in the lab, notably studying tortoise genetics at Yale University, and the reality of applying that knowledge to the complex, uncertain, and real world.
I felt at home; nature was spoiling me. But most of all I saw that we still have so much to learn to be able to protect this unique place with its incredible inhabitants. GC staff, among others, has helped me to see that if we work hard, we can sometimes rebuild what has been lost and make human activities sustainable — even in spite of increasing threats such as climate change and a growing human population.
Full of hope and wonder, I traveled across the Galapagos Islands. Full of hope and wonder, I will go forward, sharing my passion for nature, the giant tortoises, and Galapagos; working for their protection and restoration, and…wearing my blue-footed booby socks.
An evolutionary biologist, Dr. Quinzín is now turning into the conservation biologist she always wanted to be. Currently, she is a postdoc researcher at Yale University under the supervision of Dr. Gisella Caccone, who has conducted genetic studies on Galapagos giant tortoises for more than 20 years. Photos © Maud Quinzin.