Good News from the Galapagos Islands: Celebrating the Birth of Pinzon Giant Tortoises!

Start the Year Right with Good News From the Galapagos Islands!

There is no better way to start the year than with good news coming all the way from the Galapagos Islands. In a world constantly threatened by global warming, hunting and pollution, the news of new life acts as a ray of hope that invites us all to keep contributing to the state of the world with our positive grain of sand. Every effort, no matter how small, goes a long way in helping! This is what the archipelago has finally seen after years of work on behalf of the Galapagos National Park (GNP). A breeding program that started in 1965 to save the Pinzon Island giant tortoise has resulted in baby tortoises being born in the wild and on their original island for the first time in over a century. After eradicating the black rat population that affected not only the giant tortoise population but also every other species on the island, Pinzon Island finally recovered and life was born again.

Charles Darwin was the first one to note that, in the Galapagos, every island is home to a different subspecies of giant tortoise. Due to different causes (mostly human-related), the populations on some islands were severely threatened, some even to the point of extinction. Perhaps the story of Lonesome George rings a bell? In other cases, humans were able to intervene right on time – and for the right reasons – to aid some of the most endangered species of the archipelago. Learn more about the efforts of the GNP and celebrate the beginning of this New Year with the first natural births of the Pinzon giant tortoises on their home island!

Juvenile Pinzon giant tortoise. Photocredit: Island Conservation

Juvenile Pinzon giant tortoise. Photocredit: Island Conservation

The Eradication of the Threat

The GNP breeding program started in the year 1965 with the only 20 giant tortoises that were left on Pinzon Island. It’s believed that the first sailors – mostly whalers and pirates – that were the ones that brought black rats on their boats (along with a few other invasive species that later spread uncontrollably throughout the islands). The black rat population found no other predator or competition on the island and, soon thereafter, began feeding on Galapagos doves, lizards, snakes and giant tortoise eggs. All other native species were affected by the increasing rat population, the presence of which even prevented new individuals of giant tortoise from being born.

For many years, the Pinzon giant tortoise was bred on Santa Cruz Island, but the black rat had not yet been eradicated. In 2012, after five years of experimenting with the toxicity of a potential poison for the rats, the poison was deemed safe to be released on Pinzon Island without affecting other native and endemic species. The only species that could possibly be affected by the eradication plan would be the Galapagos hawk, the only species on the island that fed on the black rats and whose population increased because of this surplus of food. To keep their population from diminishing or being contaminated by the toxicity of the poison, several Galapagos hawks (12 from Pinzon Island and 40 that had arrived from other islands) were captured and bred in captivity on the island of Santa Cruz.

Scientists visiting Pinzon Island. Photo credit: Island Conservation

Scientists visiting Pinzon Island. Photo credit: Island Conservation

Life Finds a Way

In the year 2014, Pinzon Island was finally declared “rodent-free”. The first step was to release the Galapagos hawks that naturally found their way back to the island where they had first been captured. Pinzon giant tortoises followed suit. Ever since, the island’s health has showed remarkable improvement, with an evident increase in the land dove, lava lizard and Galapagos snake populations.

Since the program started, Pinzon giant tortoises from the breeding centre were repatriated back to Pinzon Island at the age of 5 years, when they could no longer be eaten by rats. However, since the year 2014, no more tortoises were repatriated. It wasn’t until this year that scientists saw the first individuals of the subspecies naturally born on their home island!

Adult Pinzon Giant Tortoise. Photo credit: Island Conservation

Adult Pinzon Giant Tortoise. Photo credit: Island Conservation

Pinzon is not included on tourist itineraries because it’s specifically reserved for scientific research. Don’t worry though! Galapagos giant tortoises can be seen in their natural habitat and at breeding centres on the islands of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. Marvel at their beauty and imitate their lethargic demeanor! They are certainly a species worth seeing in their natural habitat and they will be an unforgettable part of your Galapagos adventure!

Nathalie Moeller is of Ecuadorian and German descent. As a child she spent her summers in the Galapagos Islands, where her mother grew up, and from a very young age learned to love the beauty and uniqueness of the archipelago. She studied Journalism and Humanities in Barcelona, after living in Madrid and Germany for a couple of years. This gave her a culturally broader view of the world, which is reflected in everything she does. Blogging gives her the opportunity to combine her passion for travelling and writing.