This year, 2015, will see the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative in full swing, with collaborators from across the globe working with the Galapagos National Park to restore tortoise populations to islands where they are extinct in the wild. It may sound faintly like the archipelago’s answer to Jurassic Park, but it is a solid, scientific endeavor involving the excellent work of geneticists at Yale University, field work by Galapagos National Park personnel and many scientists over the years, and leadership by our own staff and adjunct scientists, to restore tortoise populations on several islands. The ability to use lab science and field work to achieve a conservation success is exciting and will be a model of collaboration that we hope will be embraced around the world in other protected areas.
While this work is the culmination of countless numbers of hours in the field and in the laboratory, it was also inspired by the story of Lonesome George. Lonesome George, found alone on the island of Pinta in 1971, sparked a rare, international effort to reach out to institutions and organizations around the world, as well as private collectors, to find him a mate. As the years progressed, however, it became increasingly clear that no mate would be found and Lonesome George would never reproduce. In 2012 we lost that possibility when Lonesome George died.
The scientific and conservation community strongly felt the weight of his situation and sought solutions with passion and dedication. That effort has culminated in the work we will be pursuing this year. Geneticists from Yale University have identified hybrid tortoises on Wolf Volcano (at the north end of Isabela Island), some with partial Pinta ancestry and some with partial Floreana ancestry. Recovering these hybrids and initiating a breeding program for Pinta and Floreana will eventually provide a large number of young tortoises to restore the tortoise populations on both islands.
Genetic analyses have also confirmed that the Española tortoise is most closely related to the extinct species from Santa Fe Island. Hence, Española tortoises will be used as a substitute species to resurrect a tortoise population on Santa Fe. With healthy tortoise populations as genetically close to the originals as possible, all three islands will undergo a broader island restoration engineered by the released tortoises.
2015 will see the first release of 200 Española tortoises on Santa Fe, followed by regular monitoring of these “ecosystem engineers.” Later this year, Park personnel will lead an expedition to Wolf Volcano to collect additional blood samples from previously missed tortoises and recover any hybrid tortoises with Pinta and Floreana ancestry encountered to initiate the breeding programs.
We all have a role to play in keeping this extraordinary place pristine and intact for future generations. And while the Galapagos Islands seem far away — and they certainly are — the lessons we are constantly taught about our responsibility as stewards of incredible species and their environments are important lessons regardless of where we live. Individuals can make a huge difference. That shared responsibility connects us all.
Johannah Barry is the founder and President of Galapagos Conservancy.