Giving a helping hand to save the Galapagos Giant Land Tortoise

In 1835 when the naturalist Charles Darwin disembarked from the ship the Beagle for his brief adjournment on the volcanic archipelago now known as the Galapagos, his eventual findings changed Western mans theory of the evolution of the species. Just six weeks turned the whole scientific world on its head.

Now, when people mention a cruise to the Galapagos, the usual thing that springs to mind is a rather expensive sojourn made by retired city bankers and their wives, or honeymooners splashing out on their last great holiday before the mortgage and the inevitable school fees.

I made a less luxurious trip to the enchanted islands, spending time working on a conservation project, working with the giant land tortoises. I was hoping in some small way I could help restore the ecological imbalance that man was so rapidly and blindly creating.

The giant land tortoises do not immediately spring to mind as being on the endangered species list. But unfortunately mans hand has played a part in the virtual extinction of more appealing species than these.

Hunted and killed for their meat and the fact that they could go for months without water in the hold of ships, both whalers and hunters severely depleted their numbers from the 19th century onwards.

Each island of the Galapagos has its own unique species and this has meant that certain breeds are already extinct. The most famous representative of the giant tortoise was Lonesome George, highlighting the importance of the breeding project. He was the last of his kind from the island of Pinta, and died in 2013 without an heir or a spare.

The trip to the island I would be working on was a bit of adventure. The island of Isabella is one of the more remote islands in the chain and at the time of my trip did not have an air strip.

I had met up with another volunteer called Amanda. We were both students at the Quito Spanish language school that I had been a student at for two weeks. Although my Spanish was still virtually non existent, this was not the fault of my tutor, but of me being so British that learning a foreign language was just that, a foreign language.

The journey started with a flight from the capital of Ecuador – Quito, to the island of Baltra. A rather enthusiastic Labrador sniffed at our baggage and once he had decided we had nothing untoward in our luggage we were free to go.

We then caught a bus across the small island to where a ferry was waiting to take tourists to the most popular island of Santa Cruz. And then a bus drive the full length of the island to the port. Where we brought tickets for the boat to Isabella which was another three hour trip.

On arrival at the small harbour of Isabella, Amanda and I had been told to look out for a man wearing a baseball cap with flamingos on, but by this time we were both so excited by the sight of seals and penguins swimming nonchalantly around the tiny bay that we forgot all about this arrangement. However two large white ladies jumping around with joy were rather conspicuous and Alfredo with his baseball cap found us quickly enough.

 

My days began with breakfast at 7.00 and then a walk to the Isabella Tortoise Breeding Centre, the most glorious walk to work I have ever had in my working career. Along pristine white beaches dotted with Iguanas sunbathing and dolphins enticing you to swim with them before work. No journey to work has ever matched it.

At work we were given an explanation (in Spanish) of the centre and its aims and were shown round a small exhibition centre. One of the things pointed out to us was the tortoises’ main predators, of which there were quite a few, and rather depressingly all introduced to the islands by man.

Donkeys and cattle, which destroy the nests by trampling over them. Back rats eat the new hatchlings. Fire ants which as their name suggests are extremely vicious, also kill hatchlings in their nests. Pigs and dogs dig up and eat the eggs.

And finally goats, they compete with the adult tortoises for food and destroy the natural vegetation of the islands.

I was then given my job for the duration of my stay. I would be looking after the small tortoises, cleaning them out, giving them fresh water and just making sure they were happy little tortoises.

The first thing that really surprised me was the size of the adult tortoises. They were huge. But when you looked at the tiny newly hatched babies you could not believe that they would eventually over many many years grow into the benign but prehistoric monsters in the corrals.

The main income for the breeding centre was visitors from the cruise ships. They would turn up immaculately dressed as if attending a summer cocktail party. And initially I would feel ashamed standing there covered in tortoise poo and sweating like a pig. But the visitors were always interested and impressed by the fact I was volunteering to work there.

The mornings kind of rumbled along in the same vein. Tortoises though endearing, do not pull up many surprises in terms of their behaviour.

Although one did attempt to bite a rather overly affectionate German volunteer. She was trying to hug him for some reason only known to her. Fortunately tortoises do not have teeth so no major damage was done. Why the hell the German lady wanted to hug a tortoise was completely lost on me and the rest of the crew.

Suddenly a rumour began to surface; some of the tortoises were going to be released into the wild on Vulcan Azul. It was just a rumour and a rather blurred one at that.

Fernando in slow Spanish said, “We will get up very early at about 5.00. Go to a boat to go across to the bottom of Vulcan Azul. We will then walk up the volcano for six hours and release the animals.” (What!)

For days this was the topic of conversation. I even dragged my hiking boots out of my ruck sack ready for this ridiculous six hour hike with tortoises strapped to my back. And then our expectations were dashed by the knowledge that Vulcan Azul had erupted and therefore it was not the best time for the release.

My stay on Isabella was soon to come to an end. And then on my last week we were told we would be releasing a group of young tortoises to an area known as the wall of tears. Which was a place where prisoners were employed to build what now seemed a pointless wall of bricks in a barren wasteland. No wonder they cried!

We all started running around, tortoises were handed up to be placed in the back of an open truck. One we had about 150 tortoises onboard fellow volunteers climbed in with them. For some reason I was given the luxury of sitting up with the driver.

Tortoises do not travel very well and as the volunteers climbed out of the back of the truck once we reached our destination, their appearance attested to this fact.

Tortoise poo is very green, their main diet when in captivity consisting of banana leaves and the variety of apples that are poisonous to man but that the tortoises love and can eat.

One particular volunteer, Jessica, was usually very white. But her legs were smeared with green, like some rather smelly camouflage paint.

And so we placed tortoises in sugar cane sacks and walked off into the harsh landscape. Eventually a somewhat bemused local stood scratching his head and said, “Here.”

With great ceremony we released the animals. Who ambled off totally disinterested with any of us.

And so I left Isabella, returning to Santa Cruz to embark on some island hopping.

But I first decided to drop down and visit Lonesome George. He lived his lonely life at the Charles Darwin Research Centre.

Fernando had phoned ahead, but I was still totally dumbfounded by the job offer made to me shortly after I arrived.

Lonesome George had once a very special carer. At the time that I visited there were several women who cared for Lonesome George and there was a vacancy, would I like to do the job. I was a bit bemused at first, did they mean clean out his corral?

No. It was then explained to me. They needed Lonesome George to produce offspring, And well given his age he was either a bit reluctant or he just need a bit of help! And back in 1993 Sveva a Swiss graduate was employed to help Lonesome George well get it up to put it crudely.

Lonesome George was so old that T-Rex looked like a young upstart! I could not but help think this was where scientists had got it totally wrong. The poor bugger was knackered. No healing hands were going to resurrect his love life.

I was almost beginning to believe the guy, that there was indeed an opportunity for me to use my gentle hands, and then I realised that although Sveva had been real, this was a wind up from Fernando from the island of Isabella.

I left the centre wondering if I had blown my chances. I could have spent another six months in Paradise. But then I wondered how the job remit would have looked on my CV.

“ Employed as Lonesome Georges personal erection assistant on the island of Santa Cruz.” I really couldn’t see many job opportunities coming from that one! Well not decent ones anyway.

“How do you feel you could contribute to an all male team?”

“Well I am very experienced at boosting the male ego…….”

No, I decided, the blue footed boobies on the island of Seymour where calling me! And so I left the old gent to his solitude and headed for the harbour for my next boat. The island of Seymour apparently was the best place to walk through colonies of boobies, the Spanish word for clowns.

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