The story of Lonesome George is well known to anyone familiar with the Galapagos Islands. In 1971, the male tortoise was discovered living on remote Pinta Island, where the species was thought to be extinct. |
Up until his death in 2012 at the Charles Darwin Research Station, scientists and researchers made many attempts to introduce George to female tortoises from Santa Cruz in the hopes of re-establishing the Pinta Island species – albeit a hybrid one. While the efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, George became a global cultural icon as the last of his kind. His discovery led to the creation of Project Pinta, whose aim was to carry out the ecological restoration of Pinta Island through the re-introduction of tortoises.
A Three-Phase Project
As with all conservation initiatives, the project to create a balanced restoration of the island's ecosystem takes a long view and is divided into three phases.
The first phase of the project began in the summer of 2010 (while Lonesome George was still alive). Researchers transferred 39 adult, sterilised hybrid tortoises from Santa Cruz to Pinta, transporting them up through the lower and higher slopes and into the interior of the island. The park rangers used a method of trussing the tortoises and attaching them to a large pole, which was then carried between two people.
After the release, researchers began monitoring the animals' feeding habits and movements with the aid of satellite tags attached to their shells. They discovered the impact of the tortoises on the landscape was almost immediate, with a flattening of vegetation and the appearance of lizards and finches to the disturbed habitat.
In summer 2011, phase two commenced with researchers returning to the island. They continued monitoring the tortoises to determine any changes in their behaviour, and also the impact on the ecosystem since their introduction. From the data collected, researchers were able to develop their plan for the recovery of the island's ecosystem and make recommendations to the GNP (Galapagos National Park) for future management based on the following objectives:
• To gauge how the tortoises had interacted with the habitat (plants) in order to be able to predict their effect and impact over time. • To determine future strategies and guidelines for the release of reproductive tortoises in the future.
Phase three of the project is due to commence in 2020, with the proposed release of reproductive tortoises to the island. The initial plan was to release a number of young saddle-backed tortoises from one of the other Galapagos species (domed species prefer higher altitudes, which are far more restricted on the island). However, in 2012 the discovery of hybrid tortoises on Wolf Volcano (on Isabela Island) with DNA that matched that of the Pinta species has added another facet to the project.
Researchers must now make the decision whether to follow their original plan or re-introduce the offspring of the hybrid Pinta species in order to repopulate the island.
See Conservation in Action on a Galapagos Cruise
Project Pinta is not the only initiative dedicated to preserving this unique region and its wildlife. For those fortunate enough to explore the archipelago on a Galapagos cruise, it's not hard to see the extensive conservation efforts in action. Almost the entire archipelago (97%), including the surrounding oceans, is a designated National Park and also a UNESCO protected World Heritage Site. Eco-tourism is strictly limited, and anyone who enters the region on a Galapagos cruise is required to adhere to the regulations of the park directorate.
While the tireless work of park rangers, scientists and researchers is vitally important, every single visitor to the islands can do their part.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in the unique wildlife of the Galapagos Islands. Marissa chooses the expert-led Galapagos cruise itineraries organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in one of the most spectacular regions on Earth.
Related Articles -