By Wacho Tapia, Director of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative
On June 27, 2015, after more than 150 years, Santa Fe Island once again became home to a giant tortoise population. Given that the original Santa Fe tortoise has been extinct since the mid-1800s, a substitute species that is closely related genetically is being used to repopulate the island. Today, 201 juvenile tortoises of the species Chelonoidis hoodensis (native to Española Island) wander the cactus forests of Santa Fe. Their presence there will contribute to the ecological restoration of the island and, at the same time, provide a backup population for the Española tortoise.
More than a month after releasing the tortoises, I was anxious to return to Santa Fe to check on them for the first of many monitoring trips. I had so many questions. Had they stayed near the release site? Did they all survive? How were they doing in their new home? Finally on August 6, I returned to Santa Fe for one week of field work along with Jeffreys Málaga, one of the most experienced park rangers, and Jean Pierre Cadena, a new ranger who had just completed his third month working for the Galapagos National Park Directorate. Andrés Valdivieso, a Yale University student doing a summer internship with the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative, also participated, and we were fortunate to have Tui DeRoy along. Tui grew up in Galapagos, and is now one of the world’s most prestigious nature photographers.
Our arrival was made difficult by very choppy seas and, although we managed to get all our food and gear ashore safely, we all ended up completely soaked. We set up camp on the east coast of the island, and each day we hiked inland to search for tortoises and complete our data collection.
From my previous experience working with repatriated juvenile tortoises on other islands, particularly those repatriated to Española, I did not expect these tortoises to have moved very far from the release area. However, on Santa Fe they showed much greater dispersal. On the first day, we were surprised to find a young tortoise nearly one kilometer from the release site. This tortoise had, in six weeks, walked a distance that a similarly aged tortoise might walk after several years.
At first Andrés and I thought that this tortoise was an exception, an “adventurer” out to explore, but over the next several days we found nearly a dozen tortoises had done the same. If they continue at this pace, within a few years we could expect to find tortoises across the entire island — and the goal of ecological restoration of Santa Fe will be achieved much more quickly than expected.
During our week on Santa Fe, we located 142 of the 201 released tortoises. All were in excellent physical condition and had gained weight. Although small, they are already contributing to seed dispersal, which will certainly contribute to ecosystem dynamics.
Throughout the trip we experienced the extraordinary biodiversity of Santa Fe, including humpback whales playing in the sea a few meters from camp, nesting hawks, owls, snakes, several species of terrestrial birds, and the endemic land iguanas. What surprised us, though, was that in spite of numerous articles by experts confirming the arrival of an abnormal El Niño event, the herbaceous vegetation had dried to a golden brown, in contrast to the greenery that had dominated the landscape just weeks before.
Although I have camped on Santa Fe various times during my years in Galapagos, I’ve always had a hard time photographing the endemic rice rat. During this trip, however, I not only got great photos, but we had to be very careful and creative to prevent them from upsetting our food preparations. They even gnawed the gas hose to our stove. I look forward to sharing our camp with these incredible creatures on future trips — but I will be much better prepared to prevent their mischief.
All photos © Wacho Tapia except water landing © Tui DeRoy/GNPD.