A Big Comeback for the Giant Galápagos Tortoise

From 15 to 1,000—that’s the difference 50 years has meant for the giant Galápagos tortoise population on the island of Española.

A technician holds a baby giant tortoise and tortoise egg at the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos, Ecuador, in August. (Photo: Paul Tullis)

Oct 31, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Thanks to decades of conservation efforts, the iconic giant Galápagos tortoise, once on the brink of extinction, has recovered to a point where human intervention is no longer needed, according to a study published this week in the journal PLOS One.

“It’s a rare example of how biologists and managers can collaborate to recover a species from the brink of extinction,” James P. Gibbs, a professor of biology at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and lead author of the paper, said in a statement.

Over the years, the giant tortoise has come to symbolize the unique archipelago, which is some 600 miles west of Ecuador, that it calls home.

By the 1960s, overhunting of tortoises and the introduction of grass-eating, habitat-destroying goats had decimated the population to the point that conservationists started bringing captive-bred specimens to the island in hopes of breeding them.

“Nobody knew how to breed tortoises in captivity, and the best zoos around the world had failed,” Gibbs told Reuters. “The Galápagos National Park figured it out and actually became exceedingly effective at it.”

With a sustainable number of tortoises, the island’s habitat should improve as well. Tortoises—“ecosystem engineers,” as Gibbs calls them—naturally spread plant seeds and other organisms around the island, which promotes biodiversity.

The study also noted the island still needs work. The decimation of shrubs by goats brought on an overgrowth of trees that choke out the island’s native cactus plants—a big part of the giant Galápagos tortoise's diet.

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The larger and more numerous trees are also hindering the endangered waved albatross that breed on the island. The gangly birds apparently need a lot of room to take flight, and the trees make it difficult for them to take off, the study noted.

“There is yet more work to fully recover the ecosystem upon which the tortoises and other rare species depend,” Gibbs said in the statement.

Until the island’s natural habitat is restored, the study says, the number of tortoises will most likely not increase. Before the island was inhabited, Gibbs estimates the tortoises numbered between 5,000 and 10,000.