The Conservation of Galapagos

Expedition Tours

08 July 2020

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On June 15 of 2020, the Galapagos National Park, with the scientific support of the Galapagos Conservancy NGO, conducted the elaborate process of repatriating the 15 original Española Island giant tortoises, rescued in the 1960’s, back to their island of origin, after 55 years of absence, conducting an iconic program of breeding in captivity at the National Park’s Giant Tortoises Breeding Center in Santa Cruz Island. This was the last step of a program considered internationally as one of the most successful in the world. Without it, one more Galapagos giant tortoise species could have well become extinct.

The story began in the mid 60’s with an ample search of Española Island, where the last 14 surviving individuals, all adults, from the unique endemic species of giant tortoise, exclusive from this island, were found: twelve females and only two males. This species has the very peculiar carapace shape of the “saddle-back” type. To these 14 individuals, an additional male from the same species was brought back from the San Diego Zoo and baptized with the name of “Diego”. According to the Breeding Center’s records, Diego may have contributed to an approximate 40% of the offspring resulting from the breeding with the 12 females of his species.


The program, which began as a kind of experiment, became one of the major landmarks of Galapagos conservation.  It took three decades before, after complying with the most rigorous protocols and procedures, in the early 2000’s, the first groups of young adults, born in captivity, began being repatriated to Española Island, once the island had been freed from introduced species and the vegetation which provides much of the tortoises food had been restored.  Over the last 20 years, several hundred tortoises, in groups, have been brought into Española and many are already successfully breeding in the wild, on their native habitat.

According to the Galapagos National Park, there are currently more than 2300 tortoises from this emblematic species roaming free and breeding in the island.  Once the introduced species are gone or greatly controlled, plus a strictly controlled tourism model which only allows visits to two specific areas of the island, only during daylight hours, from clearly marked paths and accompanied by licensed Naturalist Guides; the National Park and its allies in the project took the decision of taking back to their original home the 14 original individuals plus “Diego”, to give a formal closure to this particular project. No doubt, this is a true success story and a landmark for Galapagos conservation.

While it cannot be guaranteed, there are fair chances that visitors, especially the earlier ones to visit Española after the pandemic, may even have the luck to spot one or more of these unique reptiles, symbol of Galapagos, in the wild, during their excursions.

There are more and equally fascinating cases happening with other species, about which we will be sharing their stories with you in our upcoming mailings.

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