UPDATED SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 27, 1445 EDT
The Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment announced that 79 tortoises bred in captivity have been repatriated to Santiago Island by Galápagos National Park rangers. It’s all part of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative, aimed at building back the devastated populations of tortoises in the Galápagos.
When Charles Darwin landed on Santiago in 1835 during his exploration of Galápagos, he found a party of Spaniards on the island exploiting the tortoise population for food. Darwin himself even dined on cooked tortoise, but gave it a mixed review. “The young tortoises make excellent soup,” he wrote, “but otherwise the meat to my taste is indifferent.”
But other voyagers who had been deprived of fresh meat were more ecstatic.
Captain James Colnett of the British Navy wrote: “The land tortoise which in whatever way it was dressed, was considered by all of us as the most delicious food we had ever tasted.”
US Navy captain David Porter declared: “After once tasting the Galapagos tortoises, every other animal food fell off greatly in our estimation.”
And so, sailors kept feasting on the tortoises. That, plus the introduction of pigs, goats and other invasive animals that devoured the island’s vegetation, left the Santiago tortoise, Chelonoidis darwini, at the edge of extinction. The same story was repeated on other islands in the archipelago.
At the time the park was established in 1959, only 300 tortoises, mostly males, remained on Santiago. The park and the Charles Darwin Foundation began breeding the tortoises in captivity while working to eradicate the invasive animals on Santiago and other uninhabited islands.
On April 19, 1975, the job of repatriating the Santiago tortoises first got underway. With this latest group of 79, a total of 1033 tortoises have been sent back to the island.
The newly-arrived tortoises are between 3 and 5 years old. In order to be eligible for repatriation, their shells had to measure at least 9 inches (23 centimeters), front to back. Officials have equipped them with monitoring chips so their locations can be tracked as they roam around Santiago.
Park officials estimate the total tortoise population on Santiago (those repatriated plus those born in the wild) may now number 1,500, a fivefold increase since the work of saving the tortoises got underway.