Jan 31

Galapagos – giant tortoises, the iconic symbol of the islands

by in Galapagos

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One of the highlights of any trip to the Galapagos Islands is to see the giant tortoises. Along with the famous frigate birds they are probably the most photographed animals in the islands. We anchored at Santa Cruz island to visit the giant tortoise center both in the highlands and at the Darwin center where they are breeding large numbers of tortoises to reintroduce to the islands. The exact number of subspecies of the giant tortoise that have existed is still under debate among scientists, but some recognise up to 15. Only ten subspecies now exist in the wild, interestingly there are different subspecies on different islands. Another amazing fact about the evolution and diversity of the Galapagos and how species can vary just from island to island that are less than 50 miles away from each other.. An eleventh subspecies, from Pinta Island, is now considered extinct and was represented by a single living specimen, named Lonesome George, until his death on 24 June 2012.

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There was some controversy about the way he died as many people think he was neglected and his illness should have been discovered before his condition worsened.

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Anyway enough of the politics. The highlands center we visited was amazing. We were expecting to see tortoises but not very close up. We basically arrived at the visitors center and then set out on a walk with the guides. About 2 minutes later there was the first giant tortoise, about 70 to 80 years old with an enormous shell just tramping through the grass. He proceeded to get very irate at 20 or so tourists standing by him trying to get a picture. He kept hissing and ducking his head back into his shell.

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Then would set off again through the grass and try and make a run for it. The rest of the walk was as rewarding as seeing the first tortoise. We saw at least a dozen more tortoises including three that were having a spa day in a mud pool. They looked so relaxed and prehistoric just resting there watching all the strange tourists gawping at them.

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We then made our way to the Darwin Center where they are conducting a breeding program to repopulate the islands that used to have tortoises on. Unfortunately when man arrived they devastated the population by taking tortoises for food, introducing non native species such as dogs, goats and cats as well as the usual survivors such as rats.

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Some marine iguanas greet us at the Darwin center..

So the breeding program is introducing the same subspecies as are on the island already. We went around the breeding centres and watched the little tortoises racing around with there little white numbers on their backs that identified them. They stay at the center for seven years and then are transported and released on the islands that their subspecies are based.

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Ickle tortoises…

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It is wonderful that the Ecuadorian government and foreign governments and institutions are helping to preserve this unique species. To see them survive and grow is so important, especially after things like the death of Lonesome George happened. It would be a tragedy if they died off completely.

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Sunset in Santa Cruz

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