An Extinct Rare Giant Tortoise was Found on the Galápagos Islands

The expedition was part of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative and was funded by Animal Planet.

Apr 15, 2019

Named for their giant tortoises, the Galápagos Islands has been home to many unique species. One type of tortoise, believed to be extinct for 100 years, was recently found and conservationists are thrilled.

An adult female Fernandina giant tortoise or chelonoidis phantasticus was found in her natural habitat on Fernandina Island. The discovery was made by an expedition of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI),a collaboration between the Galápagos National Park Directorate and the Galápagos Conservancy, a US based nonprofit.

Biologist Forrest Galante, host of the Animal Planet TV show which funded the expedition, called it one of the biggest discoveries on the islands in the last 100 years. "As a biologist and someone who has dedicated my life to the pursuit of animals believed extinct, this is by far my greatest scientific accomplishment and proudest moment," he told ET Canada.

Ecuador's minister of the environment, Marcelo Mata Guerrero, said in a statement that the Galápagos National Park "has the full support of the national government and the ministry of environment to develop the research deemed necessary to ensure the conservation and preservation of the species that host the Islands Galápagos."

The tortoise, found on February 17, 2019  in a patch of vegetation, is in good health but underweight. She was brought by boat to a breeding center on Santa Cruz Island according to the ministry’s statement. Genetic studies will have to be done to confirm that the female tortoise is really from the Fernandina Island species. She is believed to be at least 100 years old.

Jeffeys Malaga and Washington Tapia who found the tortoise believe that there may be more tortoises on the island because they found traces and excrement in other parts of the island that was separated by recent lava flows according to the ministry's statement.

"This encourages us to strengthen our search plans to find other turtles, which will allow us to start a breeding program in captivity to recover this species," said Danny Rueda, director of the Galápagos National Park.

An expedition to Fernandina is planned for later this year to look for more Fernandina giant tortoises according to the conservancy. If more are  found, they will be brought into captivity with this female in hopes that they will breed, so that they can eventually be brought back to Fernandina Island to live out their lives. The tortoises can live for 200 years.

It is important to conduct the expedition now because of the lava flows according to the Red List of threatened species. The Fernandina giant tortoise species had been listed as critically endangered and possibly extinct. Fernandina's volcano La Cumbre, is one of the most active in the world.

Giant tortoises, along with endemic rice rats, used to plentiful on the islands but they have been decimated according to the Galápagos Conservancy, by people (primarily buccaneers and whalers) who exploited them as a food source during the 18th and 19th centuries and the tortoises were later harvested for oil. Later, introduced species damaged or destroyed the tortoise's habitat and contributed to their suspected demise.

The more than a dozen  islands in the archipelago once were so filled with biodiversity that they helped feed Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Many of the species are endangered today.

Organizations like the Galápagos Conservancy and the restoration projects are working to rescue and bring back many of the endangered species including a rare iguana on Santiago island that was also thought to be extinct. These efforts are helping to undo the damage that has been done and help heal the planet.

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BONNIE RIVA RAS, EDITOR & WRITER
Bonnie Riva Ras has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.