Giant tortoise breeding programme a success

Posted on 8 July 2020

In the mid 1960s  a team of scientists collected the last remaining 15 giant tortoises from Española Island in the Galápagos. These 15 tortoises were the last sliver of hope for bringing back the population from the brink of extinction.

Now, 60 years later, the the Española captive breeding program is officially closed due to its success.

The Galapagos National Park Directorate and Galapagos Conservancy carried out the release of the original group of 15 reproductive adult tortoises from Española Island (Chelonidis hoodensis) back to their island of origin as part of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI).

The Española tortoise program represents one of the most successful captive reproduction and breeding programs ever undertaken anywhere in the world, as these 15 last remaining tortoises from Española effectively saved their species from extinction and have contributed to the restoration of the island’s ecological integrity.

With their return to their island of origin, they will join approximately 2,300 other tortoises that now reproduce naturally on the island — which is now able to support the growing tortoise population in the long term following the eradication of introduced goats.

‘This captive breeding program, in addition to the management actions implemented on Española island, give us peace of mind that we managed to save a species that would otherwise have become extinct. It can only be described as successful and an example of the conservation efforts that we implement as a National Government in synergy with our allies,’ said Paulo Proaño, Minister of Environment and Water.

The Expedition

The 15 breeding tortoises were subjected to an extended quarantine process, as their release was initially planned for March but the COVID-19 pandemic prevented their transfer at that time. Prior to their release, they were internally and externally de-parasitized and an identification microchip was placed in each.

The tortoises were loaded on board a Galapagos National Park boat that would sail for Española.

After arriving on the island and completing the disembarkation, the rangers and scientists began the 1.5 mile (2.4km)  journey to Las Tunas, where the largest number of Opuntia cacti is concentrated (the primary food for tortoises), which will facilitate their re-adaptation to their home island.

‘The work is strong but the commitment is stronger; the 12 females, weighing an average of 77 lbs (34kgs), were carried by a single person, while for the 3 males whose weight exceeded 120 lbs (54kgs), two people were needed in relays. After the release, the staff remained for approximately four more hours, making observations of the behaviour of the tortoises as they settled back into their home,’ said Danny Rueda, Director of the Galapagos National Park.

Española tortoises being carried on the back’s of Park guards to the release site (© Andrés Cruz / GTRI)

‘The first monitoring trip will take place in about six months,’ commented Washington Tapia, Director of the GTRI through Galapagos Conservancy. ‘However, each tortoise has a GPS satellite device that will send six positions daily, which will add to images from 40 motion-triggered cameras distributed in the area. These will allow us to know all of their movements and activities.’

Despite their great age, each tortoise remains fit and agile and is expected to do well back on its home island — and perhaps even better than in captivity, given the abundant food and space now available on Española Island.






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