Human-Tortoise Interactions, Conflicts, and Mitigations
With the increase in giant tortoise populations and human populations on the three main inhabited islands — Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, and Isabela — greater potential for interactions, and even conflicts between the two, arises. This has been clear on Santa Cruz, where, as their population expands, tortoises have been arriving at the edges of Puerto Ayora, some feeding on plastics, others hit by cars, and at least one attacked by stray dogs.
In the farmlands, where tortoises migrate through private property, some landowners work to keep them out — disrupting migration routes — while others take advantage of the presence of tortoises to open tourist operations. However, the farms with tourist operations that depend on tortoises have begun to alter the behavior of those tortoises by, for example, maintaining ponds that are kept full throughout the year; the tortoises then remain in those farms all year, even during long periods of drought. In the long run, this change in behavior may have detrimental impacts on the tortoises.
The Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI) includes a component to document and reduce these types of conflicts, to ensure the health and well-being of the tortoise populations, and to work toward consensus with the local landowners on how the tortoise-human interactions are managed.
- Developing and maintaining official relationships with several landowners in the highlands of Isabela to maintain some of the overflow of tortoises from the Tortoise Center in Puerto Villamil on their farms for both conservation and tourism purposes.
- In 2018, the GTRI team developed a regular monitoring system for all tortoises in farmlands where there are tourism operations on Santa Cruz. Galapagos National Park rangers visit these farms weekly to examine the overall conditions, health of the tortoises, and general operations.
- In collaboration with the University of Armed Forces of Ecuador (ESPE – Spanish acronym), the GTRI group is establishing baseline information on parasites associated with humans, domestic animals (pets and farm animals), and giant tortoises.
Santa Cruz. The most complex tortoise-human interactions are occurring on Santa Cruz Island, in part due to the continued expansion of the road system throughout the highlands, as well as a growing tortoise population. Research on the recent migrations of tortoises to the edges of Puerto Ayora will help in the development of management strategies. The GTRI team also has plans to work with landowners to ensure the maintenance of migration routes for tortoises as they pass through private farmland.
San Cristóbal. Tortoise-human interactions and conflicts on San Cristóbal are relatively recent. For many decades, the relatively small tortoise population lived only in the eastern, uninhabited portion of the island. In the last decade or so, as the tortoise population begins to recover its numbers, individual tortoises are beginning to show up along the eastern edge of the highlands, entering private farmland. The GTRI team will hold workshops with these landowners to determine a strategy to allow the natural expansion of the tortoise population into areas where they existed historically, while ensuring that this does not have major negative impacts on landowners.
Isabela. While giant tortoises were a traditional part of the diet of settlers in Galapagos, hunting of tortoises ended, for the most part, shortly after the establishment of the Galapagos National Park in 1959. However, killing of tortoises, primarily in southern Isabela, underwent a resurgence in the 1990s, related, in part, to the sea cucumber fishing controversies of the period. While no longer at the level seen in the 1990s, poaching remains a serious concern. A series of mitigation strategies will be developed, including education, community outreach, and enforcement actions.
Floreana. In the next few years, as the GTRI team begins the process for the return of giant tortoises to Floreana Island, one of the first steps will be to work with the human population of that island (~150 people total) to predict and prevent any possible conflicts when the tortoises begin to enter their farms.
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