Everyone knows the sad story of Lonesome George, last of the Pinta Island Giant Galapagos Tortoises. His race was thought to be extinct until he was seen in late 1971 by some passing visitors.
He was taken to the Charles Darwin Research Station, where he has remained while scientists searched on Pinta Island, in the rest of the Galapagos and in zoos around the world for a mate.
To date, no girlfriend for George has been found.
But George would be happy to know that there are tortoises once again on his old island home! This past June, 39 Giant Tortoises were released back onto Pinta Island, making them the first ones there since George was taken from his home 40 years ago.
A Need For Tortoises
The return of the tortoises isn’t simply a feel-good story about redemption. The tortoises are actually needed there. For years, Pinta was home to a thriving population of feral goats. These goats were a great nuisance and contributed to the decline of the Pinta Island Giant Tortoise in the first place. But the goats did one thing right: they controlled the plant growth on the island.
Park rangers finally managed to eradicate the goats on Pinta (and several other Galapagos Islands as well) only to find that the plants were taking over. A large herbivore was needed to restore the balance of the ecosystem. And what better choice than Galapagos Giant Tortoises?
But which tortoises to choose? That question was easy for researchers. There is a large population of captive hybrid tortoises in the islands, which came from different sources.
For example, longtime Floreana resident Margret Wittmer collected tortoises from different islands and kept them all together.
As a result, many hybrid tortoises were hatched. Since 1976, no one has been permitted to cross-breed the tortoises, but by then there were many such hybrids (and they live a LONG time!). These tortoises are now kept on Santa Cruz and Floreana. The decision was made to sterilize these tortoises and then release them on Pinta.
Why Sterilize the Tortoises?
The reintroduction of Giant Tortoises on Pinta is a temporary solution. The goal of “Project Pinta,” as it is called, is the eventual reintroduction of Pinta Island tortoises there. Researchers have not lost hope of finding a mate for Lonesome George, and if they do, George’s offspring would be used to repopulate his former home. If they do not find a mate, then Pinta would be repopulated with Pinta Island hybrids, which would be the next best thing.
Sterilized hybrids will not reproduce in the wild, so as these 39 tortoises die off over the course of the next 150 years, they will not be replaced. Pinta Island tortoises could even be reintroduced while they’re still there!
Benefits of Project Pinta
The tortoises will form an important part of the Pinta ecosystem. They will control the vegetation and help disperse plant seeds. Certain native plant species, such as the Galapagos tomato, are particularly well suited to the tortoises, which eat the tomatoes but do not digest the seeds. These are then spread out all over the region in tortoise scat.
Scientists will study the tortoises and their behavior and adaptation in the wild, creating a sort of laboratory for re-introduction of such species. Not the least of the benefits is for the tortoises themselves: they get to live in the wild and not in a pen on Floreana somewhere!
Can we see them?
Currently, there are no visitor sites on Pinta Island, so it is impossible to see these tortoises right now. This could change in the future, however, as the park service may open up more visitor sites in the next few years.
Don’t miss your chance and see one of the last living giant tortoises on earth, visit the Galapagos Islands and be a witness of evolution:
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