By Milton Yacelga, co-founder of Kaminando: Habitat Connectivity Initiative.
Returning to the Galapagos Islands is always a privilege, and even more so if you are a biologist. My professor once said: “As a biologist, if you have not visited the Galapagos, you are not a biologist.” Though a strong statement, I know what he meant: the Galapagos Islands are a spectacle of nature; they inspired Charles Darwin to conceive of his groundbreaking theory of natural selection more than 180 years ago. It’s a place that does not fail to amaze everyone, biologist or not, when they visit.
I have been fortunate to come to the Islands numerous times. Initially I was a student volunteer, assisting scientists in the study of sea lion vocalizations. Later I returned with a scholarship for Ecuadorian students working in herpetology to study the survival of hatchling marine iguanas on a populated island. During this time, I had the opportunity to work with remarkable scientists in different fields, expanding my knowledge and my understanding of the fragile Galapagos ecosystem.
Returning to the Islands to join a research group after 20 years, marked by the age of my son Adrik, was exciting and in many ways felt new again. However, I also thought about the people I knew there, and the changes I’ve seen over the years. I searched for old friends and former colleagues to recount stories, because Galapagos has been such an important personal experience for me.
As a research destination, Galapagos always delivers. During the Wolf expedition, I heard first-hand about the discovery of the pink iguana (Conolophus marthae) living on the slopes of Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island. I learned about a new species of tortoise (Chelonoidis donfaustoi) in Cerro Fatal, Santa Cruz Island, and the exciting news that for the first time in 100 years baby tortoises were born naturally on Pinzón (Chelonoidis duncanensis). I also found out about the slow process of recovering the mangrove finch population after the devastating effects of introduced black rats and parasitic flies (Philornis downsi). All of these represent hope and concern at the same time.
On this trip I joined the tortoise research expedition to Wolf Volcano, organized by Galapagos Conservancy and the Galapagos National Park Directorate. These two organizations have developed a plan for “restoring the giant tortoise dynasty in the Galapagos.” The expedition was led by a good friend of mine, Wacho Tapia, who had completed his thesis work on giant tortoises in the 1990s, at the same time that I was studying marine iguanas.
From the moment we embarked on the Sierra Negra on November 18, 2015, my sense of wonder increased. Onshore we had the possibility of finding a tortoise that could be related to Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise whose death marked the first extinction in Galapagos in the 21st Century. If we could find several tortoises closely related to Lonesome George, the Pinta legacy would survive — the extinction of this species could be reversed!
During our eight-day search, walking in sometimes-dense vegetation up to nearly two miles to altitudes of about 1,600 feet in constant rain, we noticed what Darwin observed during his encounter with the tortoises. “When thirsty, [tortoises] are obligated to travel from long distance. Hence broad and well-beaten paths branch off in every direction [to] from the wells.” We followed similar pathways alongside our designated transects and found them, sometimes in groups up to 30 individuals. As Darwin remarked, “the tortoises were very fond of water.” Some of the individuals we encountered are hybrids between the Wolf tortoise species (Chelonoidis becki) and the extinct species from Pinta and Floreana Islands.
Galapagos is a global treasure that survives in challenging times. For these tortoises, the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative is critical for their survival. It is up to us — researchers, tourists, and island residents — to spend time and effort to conserve these species.
“Yea, I shall return with the tide.”
Milton Yacelga is a native of Ecuador with a background in animal behavior, particularly reptiles (snakes). He is a co-founder of Kaminando: Habitat Connectivity Initiative, which aims to preserve the cloud forest, a rare and endangered ecosystem in Panama. Milton completed his thesis on Galapagos marine iguanas in the early 1990s under the supervision of Dr. Linda Cayot.
All photos © Milton Yacelga except photo at left, © Kimberly Craighead.
This is Part 4 of a six-part blog series from various participants of the expedition documenting the events of the 2015 expedition to Wolf Volcano. Read Part 1: Overview by Wacho Tapia and Part 5: A First-Time View of Galapagos by Jane Braxton Little.