A group of giant tortoises that lived in captivity for decades and helped rescue their species from the brink of extinction have been released into the wild on the Galapagos Islands.
The tortoises were bred in captivity to repopulate the islands after their numbers in the wild diminished to 15 individuals, said park director Danny Rueda. There are now more than 2000 of them on Espanola Island, he said.
The giant tortoises are known for their long, leathery necks and lifespans of over 100 years. Apparently now the symbol of the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, they were one of the species that helped Charles Darwin form his theory of evolution in the 19th century.
One of the newly freed tortoises is Diego, estimated to be around 100 years old. Renowned for his fertility, he alone fathered some 800 offspring.
Diego’s return to his native Espanola comes after around eight decades of living in a California zoo and then in the tortoise recovery program on Santa Cruz island in the Galapagos.
For his final journey home, Diego was taken by boat to Espanola, along with 14 of his companions. From there, rangers used backpacks to take the tortoises – who can weigh up to 180kg to an area where cactus grows in abundance that will help them readapt. There, they will be monitored with GPS trackers.
It has been a conservation success story.
“We can shut down the captive breeding program of this species because their natural behaviour is effective,” said Rueda.
The Galapagos tortoises are the largest living ones in the world that can be found in two places; the Galapagos Islands of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador and Aldabra in the Indian Ocean.east of Tanzania.
Those tortoises are natives to the seven islands that make up the Galapagos archipelago. When 16th century Spanish explorers discovered it, they named it after Galapago, which is Spanish for tortoise. From the 16th century to nowadays, the number went from 250,000 to 3,000. It was rampant exploitation of their shells, flesh and oil as well as habitat clearance for agriculture. Tortoise populations became extinct on at least three islands in historical times due to human activity.