The Trouble with Tortoises

They say that television is a force for evil, corrupting our youth as they while away their days, eyes glued to shining screens. Television is meant to be ‘fake’, ‘artificial’, dominated by corporate powers and indoctrinating children with conforming world views and a profound apathy that grows with each generation.

So what would you think if I told you that television discovered a tortoise? A tortoise that had been considered ‘Possibly Extinct’ by the IUCN for over a century; that remained on the brink of extinction, and that could only possibly be recovered with the benefit of desperate, immediate action. This is the Fernandina Galapagos Tortoise, and the remarkable tale of how it was recently recovered.

In the year of 1831, a young Charles Darwin left the coast of England aboard the HMS Beagle. Having freshly graduated from Cambridge University, Darwin was filled with a youthful restlessness, and having convinced both his family and the captain of the ship, he was finally ready to take the future in his hands. The trip was to last for a duration of five years, surveying the coast of South America, with Darwin fulfilling the role of a gentlemanly companion to Captain Robert Fitzroy, whilst indulging in some naturalist passions of his own.

Fast-forward four years and the crew had accomplished their goal, and were making their slow, tortuous way home. On September 15th 1835, they stopped off at San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos. To Darwin, this was a paradise, a haven of new and exotic species which seemed each to vary so as to best suit the conditions of their island. Over the weeks to come, they would explore the archipelago, Darwin recording with meticulous accuracy the variations between species, whilst the crew gorged themselves on the giant tortoises roaming these volcanic slopes. Surely one of the first times that such wonders were recorded in Western science, these times were formative for Darwin’s later theories of evolution- influenced both by the beaks of native finches, and the changes in shell size and shape between giant tortoises.

Their ship carried off a total of 700 belonging to just one species from an island. This species- the Floreana tortoise- went extinct in 1846. And it wasn’t the only one of its kind to go that way. Over the years that followed, the count of extinctions to these charismatic species rose slowly and inexorably. On 24th June 2012, Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island Tortoise and in his latter years an icon of conservation was found dead in his enclosure. Another species gone. Only 12 of the 15 described Galapagos tortoise species now remain.

In 1906, an expedition launched by the California Academy of Sciences discovered and killed a single tortoise on Fernandina Island. A new species discovered- a success! However in the years that followed, the Fernandina Tortoise- known only from this single specimen- seemingly disappeared from the face of the Earth. Fifty years passed, more, and still this Galapagos giant remained hidden behind a screen of obscurity. At 600 square kilometres, Fernandina Island isn’t small, but with harsh, volcanic terrain covering the majority of its surface, one would think the tortoises had nowhere to hide!

In 1964, an expedition to the island discovered possible tortoise droppings and bite marks… but no tortoises. A 2009 fly-over reported a sighting of an unidentified tortoise-like object from the air. Another attempt in 2013 and all we had was clues. And so the silence continued right up until early in 2019, when the TV channel Animal Planet joined with the Galapagos Conservancy for one final renewed attempt. Forrest Galante, host of the show Extinct or Alive would join the director of the Conservancy, Washington Tapia, and four other rangers on a two-day trip to the hostile island to determine once and for all whether the species truly remained- on camera.

When you’re looking on a volcanic island full of rugged terrain formed in frequent and deadly lava flows, things aren’t easy. And Fernandina is home to La Cumbre- one of the most active volcanoes in the world, whose “frequent volcanic lava flows” nearly cover the island. Never-the-less, the team dutifully set out at 6 am on the morning of Sunday 17th February 2019, complete with camera crew and all. They followed the contoured flows of the island for miles, searching for the isolated patches of green amidst the desolation. And, as chance would have it, they struck lucky- around midday, they come across some faecal matter left by a tortoise, and an accompanying ‘tortoise bed’- the indentation left behind in the ground by a resting tortoise.

Tortoises might be surprisingly active creatures, but marks like this don’t last long in nature. They were close! The hunt picked up as the team rapidly scanned the area for the individual that had left these traces. Finally, with impeccable eyesight and skill, the ranger Jeffreys Malaga sighted the tortoise over 2 miles away, sheltering under a bush. It was a female, well over 100 years old- although these giants can live for up to two centuries in all. She was transported back to the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Breeding Centre on Santa Cruz Island- the same centre that housed Lonesome George in his final days. Hopes, of course, are high that more of this species might be found and bred, so the species can recover. This female that has been found is still more than capable of breeding if we can only find a mate for her.

The Turtle Conservancy and Global Wildlife Conservation are pledging $100,000 USD to further efforts to recover this long-lost giant. Another expedition to Fernandina is planned for later this year. In late 2018 a Juliet was found for Romeo, the only known Sehuencas Water Frog, rising hope for the revival of their species. One can only hope that a similar miracle is in store for the Fernandina Tortoise, and that Lonesome George may remain alone as the iconic case of extinction he is today.

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