How an ‘extinct’ tortoise was rediscovered after a century

The Fernandina giant tortoise disappeared more than 100 years ago. Now there is hope its population could return.

When Washington Tapia found a Fernandina giant tortoise on its namesake island in the Galápagos, it was like winning an Academy Award.

"For me it was the most important achievement of my life because I have been working on tortoise conservation for 30 years," says the director of the nonprofit Galápagos Conservancy's Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI) and leader of the expedition. "This was basically my Oscar."

Tapia and a team of four rangers from the Galápagos National Park—Jeffreys Malaga, Eduardo Vilema, Roberto Ballesteros, and Simon Villamar—
plus Forrest Galante, a host and biologist with Animal Planet, which funded the expedition, were overwhelmed when they found the female Chelonoidis phantasticus on Fernandina, an active shield volcano and the youngest of the Galápagos Islands.

The last time a confirmed sighting of the species was registered was in 1906. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had flagged the Fernandina giant tortoise on its Red List as possibly extinct until 2017, two years after Malaga came across the reptile's feces in the park and three years after the inauguration of the GTRI. Its designation was then changed to critically endangered.

"It was a clear indication the tortoises were still there," Tapia says.

On this particular Sunday, February 17, the team set out at 6 a.m. in search of green patches among the island's innumerable lava flows. It wasn't until around midday that they spotted possible tortoise feces on a patch measuring about a third of a square mile. When Tapia saw a tortoise bed—soil had been pushed aside and there were clear prints in the dirt from its carapace and feet—he knew they were close. Malaga was the first to spot the tortoise—at first, nearly 2.5 miles away and blending into a patch of vegetation—but it was a triumph for the whole team.

"It created hope for people to know conservation is possible and that changing human activities is necessary for it to continue," Tapia said.

The female tortoise, thought to be roughly 100 years old, was taken by the team to a breeding center on Santa Cruz Island, a decision Tapia made because the area where she had been living had few food sources nearby, and, if left on Fernandina, finding her again would have been difficult. Tortoises tend to move around a lot, and the island, at over 230 square miles, is a large area to search. Its rugged terrain, caused by abundant lava flows, makes locating animals a challenge.

But Tapia and his team do expect to find more. During this search of Fernandina, they came across more tortoise tracks in soil just over a mile from where they discovered the female. The te4am is planning another expedition to the island later this year.

In the meantime, they’ll take DNA samples from the female tortoise and send them to Yale University, where giant tortoise specialists are located, to confirm she is a Chelonoidis phantasticus. The process could take months, but Tapia has no doubts she’s the real thing.

When others are found, he hopes to be able to restore the population's numbers and return them to their natural habitat. Tortoises can live to be 200 years old, so despite her advanced age, the female tortoise still has plenty of time to help her species make a comeback. (These are six of the longest-lived animals.)

This isn't the first time conservation and breeding efforts were made to bring a critically endangered population of Galápagos tortoises back to the islands. The Galápagos Conservancy has raised more than 7,000 tortoises in captivity that were then released into the wild, bringing them back from the brink of extinction. One species from Española Island was down to just 14 tortoises when breeding efforts began. Now, the population has reached over 1,000.

A total of 15 species of Galápagos tortoises have been identified in the Galápagos—two have gone extinct and 12 are threatened with extinction. (The fifteenth is also extinct, but it’s not always included on official lists because it was never formally described). (Read about Lonesome George, the last of the Pinta Island tortoises.)

But for Tapia, the discovery of the Fernandina giant tortoise is more than just the return of a species.

"Tortoises in the Galápagos are like ecosystem engineers," he said. "They contribute to seed dispersal and mold the ecosystem. That ecological role is so important."

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