The Gentle Giants of the Galapagos Islands
When you think of the Galapagos Islands, one of the first images to spring to mind is that of the giant tortoise. No wonder really, considering the Galapagos Islands were first named “Insulae de los Galopegos” or “Islands of the Tortoises.”
These formidable tortoises have been known to grow up to 1.8 metres and the largest recorded weighed 400kg. In 1835, famed naturalist Charles Darwin noted that there were “several so large it required six or eight men to lift them from the ground.” In fact, they continue to grow until they are around 40-50 years old, with a total lifespan of around 100 years. The oldest recorded tortoise achieved a pretty impressive innings of 152 years!
Old Lonesome George
As slow-moving, cold-blooded animals, they spend a good deal of their time simply napping and soaking up the sun. They are a very peaceful creature, often interacting with other species for mutual benefit. You’ll sometimes see a tortoise stretching out its neck and a Galapagos finch picking ticks off its skin, or other birds perched on its shell taking advantage of the observation point.
Even in mating season, tortoises show no real aggression to competing males. They simply rise up on their hind legs, and whoever is bigger, wins the female. The smaller male just retreats.
It seems a shame, then, to think that these passive beings have been subject to immense exploitation.
Before the discovery of the Galapagos Islands, tortoise numbers were estimated at over 250,000 in the 16th century. However, with overexploitation for meat and oil, destruction of their habitat for agriculture and the introduction of non-native animals to the islands, numbers decreased to just 3,000 by the 1970’s. Humans are thought to be accountable for those lineages that have become extinct, as giant tortoises actually have no natural predators. Being relatively immobile and somewhat defenceless, tortoises were preyed upon by sailors in the 1700’s who captured them and stored them live on board where they could survive for up to a year without food or water, providing valuabe fresh meat for the crew.
Between the 1790’s and 1860’s, whaling ships and fur sealers, wanting the tortoises for food and “turtle oil”, collected more tortoises than the buccaneers before them. This, combined with the onset of the California Gold Rush in 1849 for which the tortoises were imported to feed the gold mining populations and the settlement of the islands in the early 19th century, rendered the tortoises close to extinction.
Today, ten of the original 15 species still survive in the wild, with the 11th losing its last survivor, nicknamed Lonesome George, in 2012.
The good news is that conservation efforts beginning in the 20th Century have increased tortoise numbers, with thousands of tortoises being bred in captivity and later released, bringing the numbers to over 19,000. They are still classified as a “vulnerable” species however.
The Galapagos giant tortoise is now strictly protected and international trade for commercial purposes is prohibited.
You can see the giant tortoises both in the wild and in captivity in the Galapagos Islands. The Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora offers a fantastic educational experience about the different species of tortoises, the research and conservation. This is the best place to see the different species and see how their shell shapes have evolved differently to suit the environment of the different island from which they came – observations which contributed to Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Cruises to the Galapagos Islands will often include a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station, but if you want to spend more time observing and learning about the giant tortoises, it pays to research the available itineraries to ensure your cruise will allow you the experience you are looking for. There are many varied cruise companies operating in the Galapagos Islands, each offering a different experience so it’s a good idea to check exactly what’s included (eg. Are there naturalists onboard? What excursions are included/available?) before you book.
By the way there's more to Galapagos than just tortoises: