LIFESTYLE

After facing extinction, tortoise species on Galapagos Island makes a comeback

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 16:  Ian Stephen, ZSL's Assistant Curator of Herpetology, feeds the Galapagos tortoise Dolly, aged 16, in the new "Giant of the Galapagos" exhibit in ZSL London Zoo on July 16, 2009 in London, England. Dolly is joined by another female Dolores , aged 14, and a 70 year old tortoise Dirk, who weights 200kg, in the hope of initiating a breeding program.  (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Ian Stephen

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 16: Ian Stephen, ZSL's Assistant Curator of Herpetology, feeds the Galapagos tortoise Dolly, aged 16, in the new "Giant of the Galapagos" exhibit in ZSL London Zoo on July 16, 2009 in London, England. Dolly is joined by another female Dolores , aged 14, and a 70 year old tortoise Dirk, who weights 200kg, in the hope of initiating a breeding program. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Ian Stephen  (2009 Getty Images)

After decades of struggle, the giant tortoises on one of the islands of Ecuador’s Galapagos are thriving thanks to the efforts of conservationists and the government of the South American nation.

Thanks to a breeding program, the three-foot-long tortoises — Chelonoidis hoodensis – went from 15 remaining green guys about 50 years ago to now more than 1,000 on the island of Española.

"We saved a species from the brink of extinction and now can step back out of the process. The tortoises can care for themselves," said James Gibbs, a vertebrate conservation biology professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) College of Environmental Science and Forestry who led the study, told Reuters.

Fifty years ago, scientists had labeled these saddle-back shelled tortoises – which can live up to 200 years – as an extinct species. The tortoises eat grass and leaves during the wet season and cactus during the dry season on the island's dry season, which is arid, low, rocky and measures only 23 square miles.

"The tortoises were hunted by buccaneers, whalers and other sea goers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries," said Linda Cayot, a herpetologist who is science advisor to the Galapagos Conservancy group. "They collected them live, stacked them in their holds, and had fresh meat on their long voyages. Tortoises can live up to a year without food or water, so a natural source of fresh meat."

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The population of tortoises on Española was estimated to be around 5,000 to 10,000 before the arrival of humans on the island.

When the scientists decided to save the population in 1960, the 14 tortoises - 12 females and two males – were bred in captivity before they were reintroduced to the island.

"Nobody knew how to breed tortoises in captivity and the best zoos around the world had failed. The Galapagos National Park figured it out and actually became exceedingly effective at it," Gibbs said. 

The story of the tortoises on Española sharply contrasts with that of one famous tortoise on the island on Pinta: Lonesome George.

Lonesome George," the last survivor of the subspecies Chelonoidis abingdoni of the giant tortoises ("Galapagos" in Spanish) that gave Ecuador's Galapagos Islands their name, died in January of 2012 without ever breeding.

George was rescued in 1972 by a team of hunters who were there to eradicate the goats, a species introduced by man that had virtually destroyed the habitat and brought the giant tortoises to the brink of extinction.

Different methods were used to stimulate reproduction, at first with females of the subspecies from Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island, with which George finally mated after being in their company for 15 years, but the eggs were infertile.

Later it was placed in a corral with females of the genetically closer subspecies from Española Island, where he remained until he died.

Efe contributed to this report. 

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