To early pirates and sailors calling at the Galapagos Islands, the giant tortoise was easy prey and a convenient source of fresh meat. Given the added bonus they could be kept alive without food or water for up to a year in the hold of a ship, it’s not surprising tortoise populations were decimated almost to the point of extinction. The shape of the tortoise shells reminded early Spaniards of a type of saddle called ‘galapago’ – hence the name of the tortoise and the islands where they are found. There are in fact two distinct shell types: the dome-backed, which forages in lush highland habitats where food is at ground level; and the saddle-back, which can reach the higher leaves of scrubby vegetation found on some smaller islands.
High on the list of every Galapagos itinerary is a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz and for many visitors this is the only place where they will see the iconic giant tortoise alive. As part of a special breeding plan, the research station is also home to hundreds of young tortoises from islands where their species is under threat. Here they are reared in safety before being released into the wild at 3-5 years old. By this age they are too big to be eaten by the feral dogs, cats and rats that now infest many islands and stand an 85% chance of survival.
But seeing tortoises in open pens, in a protected environment, is not the same as seeing them roaming free in their natural habitat. If you want to do that, take a trip up into the lush, green highlands of Santa Cruz, to the El Chato Tortoise Reserve, accompanied by a national park guide. The short bus ride takes less than an hour and the observant eye soon sees signs that this is tortoise world; a world where fence wires start two feet from the ground, giving space for giant carapaces to squeeze underneath and roam freely; and where tell-tale dark green, lozenge-shaped droppings, the size of a coffee mug, litter the narrow road and grassy tracks. Inside the national park boundary, it’s not uncommon to find one of these giants shuffling along a footpath, or moving into the undergrowth with unexpected speed and agility. Nor is it unusual to find a communal mud hole with dozens of tortoises of all shapes and sizes, wallowing and sliding in the brown, sticky ooze. Stand quietly for a while and a rhythmic, wheezing sound may emanate from nearby bushes – this is the sound of tortoises mating; the smaller female wedged into the undergrowth, whilst the larger male pushes against her. Another thing you will notice is how healthy these tortoises look. With their bright eyes, scaly faces and jaws full of tender green leaves they are clearly in tortoise heaven, now safe from the clutches of passing sailors.
This story was first published in ‘Viva List Latin America’ in 2007 (check out http://www.vivatravelguides.com/). ISBN: 978 0 9791264 0 0