Daily Archives: May 4, 2017

Giant Tortoise, Santa Cruz Island

Dome-backed Tortoise, Santa Cruz Island, the Galapagos, Ecuador

Kevin Loughlin of Wildside Nature Tours applied for a permit to take our Galapagos Adventure into the highlands of Santa Cruz Island to see the Dome-backed Giant Tortoise, the largest of the giant tortoises of the Galapagos. It was only approved a few days before our departure…in fact, while Kevin and I were traveling between the Wildside Nature Tours Amazon River Boat Adventure and the Galapagos. 

On our last full day in the islands we landed on Santa Cruz and took a bus up past the giant sink-holes and over the top of the mountain to a ranch with a turtle reserve where many of the Dome-backed giants live. It is actually somewhat of a miracle that any giant tortoises remain on the Galapagos, since, for two centuries, pirate, whaling and sealing ships would regularly stop on the islands to hunt tortoises for meat. The tortoises were taken on board by the thousands, and kept alive in the holds of the ships for up to 6 months to a year before being slaughtered. Their eggs were collected just a aggressively. Up to 300,000 turtles may have been taken over the years. 4 species went extinct. 6 remain in much reduced numbers.

Scientists use to think that the Giant Tortoise was an example of island gigantism…an evolutionary process where a smaller species develops to large size in an isolated environment. It is now generally understood that the Giant Tortoise of the Gal├ípagos was already a giant tortoise when it reached the islands up to 200,000,000 years ago. At that time giant tortoises were widespread worldwide. Mainland populations died out over the ages, and while there is little direct evidence, it is hard not to conclude that that these gentle, and all too tasty, giants were hunted to extinction by the newly dominant species of Homo Sapiens. History came close to repeating itself after we discovered the Galapagos. 
Since protection, efforts have been underway to maintain and restore the population of Giant Tortoises on all the islands. Among the 6 remaining species, there are about 20-25,000 individuals right now, living mostly in the highlands of the larger islands. 

So, all in all, I feel very privileged to have seen two of the 6 species while on the islands. The first shot in the panel above intentionally includes the elbow of one of my fellow travelers to give you some idea of the scale. These tortoises are 5 feet long, almost that tall when fully standing, and can weigh 500-600 pounds. They are giant! They browse gently most of the time, but watching them move through brush is like watching a bulldozer. They can live up to 100 years easily, and there are records suggesting that individuals might reach 250 years in ideal environments. When you visit you know you are in the presence of something truly great and truly anchient. 

Sony Rx10iii at various focal lengths. Program Mode. Processed in Polarr and assembled in FrameMagic on my iPad Pro.