By Wacho Tapia, Director of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative
During all my years working for Galapagos conservation, I’ve had the opportunity to develop many important and successful projects — but the release of giant tortoises onto Santa Fe Island on June 27, 2015, was by far one of the most challenging and most thrilling. Besides returning tortoises to an island where they went extinct some 150 years ago, this project established a new management model for ecological restoration of an entire island.
After an intensive and complex learning process over many years, we began the final step in this journey at 4 AM at the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Breeding Center, where we placed 201 young Española tortoises in plastic boxes, loaded them onto a truck, drove them to the municipal dock, passed through the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency’s review, placed them on a barge, and — after a 10-minute journey — transferred them to the Sierra Negra (a research vessel of the Galapagos National Park Directorate [GNPD]).
Nearly two hours later, as the Sierra Negra approached Santa Fe, we admired a rainbow over the northeastern end of the island. We disembarked the tortoises to a beach filled with some 60 sea lions — silent witnesses to this historic event. Within minutes, each Park ranger and volunteer had between 8–12 tortoises on their back and we started the climb to the interior of the island, following a trail marked only with rocks and/or ribbons placed in the branches of trees to guide our way.
After one hour for the strongest, expert hikers and nearly two for the most novice, we reached the release site. The tortoises began to explore as soon as they were released, but mostly started feeding — appearing as if they had lived there their entire lives. It was clear that their adaptation process would be easier than we’d thought. Watch video of the release day.
I was seeing my dream become reality. Since starting work with Galapagos tortoises over 20 years ago, the idea of someday repopulating tortoises to all the islands where they existed historically has remained in my mind. But twenty years ago it was only a dream.
The decision to repopulate Santa Fe with tortoises was one of the results of the 2012 International Tortoise Workshop, which resulted in research and management plans for the next 10–20 years. But even with the decision made, it was difficult to achieve. A thorough review of human and tortoise history in Galapagos and particularly on Santa Fe was conducted, and Dr. Gisella Caccone and her team at Yale University studied the genetics of the bones and other remains of tortoises found on Santa Fe.
The ecological status of the island was evaluated, as was the status of the tortoise population on Española Island — the analog species selected to repopulate Santa Fe due to its similar genetic makeup and morphology. Prior to the release, we also built permanent plots and exclosures on Santa Fe in collaboration with the GNPD to allow us to measure the effects of tortoises in the ecosystem over time. Finally, we selected and prepared the tortoises, and refined the logistical details for the release to ensure their welfare.
Many people have been involved over the years, but I am particularly grateful to not only the 30 Park rangers and volunteers who carried the tortoises, but for the participation of the Director of the Galapagos National Park and the directors of Ecosystems and Environmental Education and Social Participation, who took the time to join us despite their busy schedules.
In a few weeks, we will return to Santa Fe to monitor the tortoises and the vegetation. This time it will be a small group — one Park ranger, one volunteer, and me. Using the signal emitted by the radio telemetry tags we placed on 30 of the 201 tortoises, we will be able to locate many of the new residents of Santa Fe and evaluate their first effects on the ecosystem and the evolution of their adaptation process.
All photos © Wacho Tapia unless otherwise noted. Watch this space for future updates on the Santa Fe tortoise restoration project.