In the 18th century, an unfortunate incident with stow-away hungry rats from a docking ship led to the depletion of the tortoise population in the Galapagos Island of Pinzon, Ecuador. The species was formerly thriving and basking in their numbers on the island, until the invasion of the rats.
These rodents ate the tortoise eggs and those of other species, disrupting the natural order of the island’s ecosystem. Birth rates became so unstable that the tortoises became an endangered species. It was nearly impossible for a baby tortoise to survive out there in the wild.
Rodent infestation, attacks from larger species, and destructive human activities nearly wiped out the baby tortoise population in Pinzon, leading to a 100-year absence from the wild.
Today, more than 500 baby tortoises are thriving in Pinzon, and they were all born and bred in the Island . This wonderful development is a testament to the success of conservation efforts over the decades. The rats were completely cleared out of the island by air-dropped rat poison in 2012, and the tortoise population has been on a steady increase since then.
Rats eradicated to give the species a chance
Conservation efforts began in 1960 when a restoration project was initiated to save the remaining egg specimens on the island. In Biologists staged an intervention for the species, collecting about 100 remaining eggs left and hatching them on another island. They were let back into Pinzon after five years when they were strong enough to defend themselves. However, their reintroduction didn’t do a lot of good for the dwindling population. The rats were still eating eat up any eggs that were laid by the adults.
The only solution was to get to the root of the problem – taking out the rodents. In 2012, the rat eradication plan was set into place, with scientists and the park service dropping a poison that would affect only rats down from helicopters all over the Island. The egg-eating pests were gone shortly afterward.
“I’m amazed that the tortoises gave us the opportunity to make up for our mistakes after so long. The incredible eradication of rats on this island, done by the park service and others, has created the opportunity for the tortoises to breed for the first time,” researcher James Gibbs told The Dodo .
In December 2014, Gibbs and his team returned to the island to assess the restoration progress. In the first part of the Island they searched, they found ten new hatchlings slowly crawling across the path. It was an amazing discovery. The ecosystem was finally being brought back to the natural order. It’s incredible what an introduction of a new species (the rats) could do to an entire island for decades. Human activities on the island didn’t help the situation at all, making it extremely difficult for the affected species to attempt to rebuild what they lost. Before Gibbs and his team left that year, they discovered about 300 wild-born baby tortoises.
“This is the first time they’ve bred in the wild in more than a century. I’m sure there were a hundred times more hatchlings out there.”
The mothers go to great lengths to hide their eggs to protect them from predators, so there are probably more babies out there than the team could find at that time. Today, the numbers are said to have risen to 500, and the species is rapidly repopulating the island again.
Hope for the future
Galapagos as a whole is on the right path to having its endangered and extinct species restored. In the Island of Fernandina, the Giant Fernandina tortoise had previously been extinct for over a hundred years. The last one was spotted in 1906. However, an expedition organized by the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI) found an adult female crawling slowly through the island, and she’s believed to be over a century old. The team is convinced there could be more hiding in other remote areas of the Island.
“This encourages us to strengthen our search plans to find other (tortoises), which will allow us to start a breeding program in captivity to recover this species,” said Danny Rueda, director of the Galapagos National Park .
Welcome back, baby Torties! Pinzon is yours once again.
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