Baby One Thousand Goes Home

On Española Island in the Galápagos, a once-embattled reptile reaches a recovery milestone

03-01-2001 // Tui De Roy
Baby One Thousand Goes Home magazine layout - saddleback tortoise  

PARK WARDEN Fausto Llerena proudly shows her off: Cradled in his hands is a tiny tortoise. Her name is Baby One Thousand. Thirty years ago only 14 bedraggled survivors of her kind remained in the wild. Tomorrow she will be the 1,000th captive-bred Galápagos giant tortoise to return to her ancestral island of Española in the Galápagos group off Ecuador's coast.

The celebration has already started. Presided over by towering giant Galápagos cacti and chirping Darwin's finches, a crowd gathers for a ceremony in the sweltering equatorial sun. All conversation hushes as the reptilian starlet (everyone refers to the tortoise as "she" although the animal is too young for scientists to be sure of its gender) appears center stage, wildly flailing stubby little tortoise legs. Her very existence is nothing short of a miracle.

Baby One Thousand's story of revival and possibility goes back many millions of years. It all started when a few of her now-extinct ancestors from the desert regions of South America were washed into the Pacific and carried 600 miles by ocean currents to the new volcanic islands of Galápagos. Here they landed and thrived in an environment with no major predators to threaten them.

After further accidents and flash floods, these animals eventually colonized ten different islands, adapting to the prevailing conditions of their new homes in different ways. Eventually these separate populations resulted in 14 distinct types, including 5 that were isolated on separate volcanoes on one single island. The driest and most inhospitable of these tortoise landscapes was southernmost Española, which gave rise to the most extraordinary of all giant tortoise races: the Española saddleback.

Marooned on an almost-rainless island whose chief characters are endless boulder fields and nearly impenetrable, mostly leafless thorny scrub, these animals became the greyhounds of the tortoise world - in contrast to their huge and rounded cousins on higher islands covered in lush vegetation. Their shells became thin and lightweight, with remarkably flared edges to give maximum mobility to their spindly legs and extremely long necks.

Far from being hampered by their environment, the tortoises on Española could stride easily across rugged terrain. Their flexible necks and small heads allowed them to reach into interstices in the lava to drink tiny puddles of drizzle and nip tentative grass blades. Or they could stretch high off the ground for a bite of juicy, dangling cactus pads.

They were so successful that as many as 15,000 of them, it is thought, once lived on the 23-square-mile island. When people first discovered Galápagos in 1535, and later explorers ventured inland in the centuries that followed, it was this tortoise, most likely, that they called Galapagos. The term is for a flared Spanish saddle, a name later applied to the islands themselves.

Unfortunately for these and other Galápagos tortoises, the very traits that made them such great survivors on desert islands turned into a disastrous liability: Early sailors discovered that the animals could be stowed aboard ship alive without food or water for weeks and months on end, supplying delicious fresh meat during lengthy ocean crossings. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, literally tens, maybe even hundreds, of thousands - from all over Galápagos, especially the smaller islands - saw their demise aboard passing pirate, whaling, sealing, naval and even scientific sailing ships.

At the same time, a bevy of domestic animals - from rats, pigs and dogs to goats and cattle - was released either intentionally or accidentally. These alien creatures promptly multiplied to plague proportions, some preying on the tortoises that remained, others stripping the vegetation cover.

Baby One Thousand Goes Home magazine layout - baby saddleback tortoises

Help first came in 1959, when 97 percent of the total land area of Galápagos was gazetted as Ecuador's first national park -Galápagos National Park- and the international Charles Darwin Foundation was created to provide scientific advice on how to protect the islands' wildlife. Conservation work started in earnest five years later, but by then the fleet-footed Española saddleback was teetering on the brink of extinction. Only 12 mature females and 2 males could be found to initiate a captive-breeding program that was their only chance for survival.

These last of the saddlebacks were emaciated and so dispersed that lichen was growing on the females' shells, a clear indication that no pairing had taken place on the island for a very long time. Far more conspicuous than the tortoises at this point were vast herds of feral goats nibbling the scrub down nearly to bare rock.

All 14 tortoises were brought over to Santa Cruz Island, centrally located in the Galápagos group, where they were housed in outdoor pens with the idea of eventually restoring Espanola’s natural population. It was a daunting undertaking. Never before in the world had an attempt been considered to breed an animal that takes as long as humans do to reach adulthood, and whose full lifespan, although still not known today, most likely far exceeds that of our own.

The work was carried out jointly by the Galápagos National Park and the Darwin Foundation's Charles Darwin Research Station. To succeed, scientists, wardens and volunteers had to collect basic breeding data, develop husbandry and caretaking techniques and secure funds year after year. The first eggs hatched in 1971, and in 1977 the breeding stock was boosted to 15 adults when a lone male was flown home to Galápagos, having been returned from the San Diego Zoo. It wasn't until ten years into the program that the first batch of 17 four-year-olds were released back on Española.

No wonder, then, that there is a party atmosphere here at the breeding facility on Santa Cruz. A "Welcome Home Baby Tortoise 1,000" banner stretches over guests that include the port captain (the highest-ranking Ecuadorian navy officer on the island) and the town priest. A representative of Ecuador's Ministry of Tourism, the island's mayor and the British consul are among two dozen or so other dignitaries in attendance. Townspeople have come to lend their support, and representatives from various local schools have taken time out from class to join in.

Speeches hail the vision of early conservation workers and praise the devotion and perseverance of the many dozens of men and women who have toiled for little or no pay year after year to bring back the species. Among those singled out are members of early scouting parties that scoured the island to find the remaining tortoises and teams of park wardens who doggedly tracked down every last one of the 3,344 goats that had laid siege to the island's ecosystem. "It cost us 30 years of unrelenting work to reach this wonderful moment," says Eliecer Cruz, director of Galápagos National Park, "so let this milestone be seen as a new beginning."

People such as warden Llerena and station herpetologist Cruz Marquez get credit, too. For the last 17 years, Llerena has personally tended to every one of the new baby tortoises hatched in the incubation house. Marquez has just co-authored an invaluable how-to manual compiling 28 years of learning that has culminated in a 98.5 percent hatchling survival rate. "In the first ten years," sums up Darwin Research Station director Robert Bensted-Smith, "there were so many problems with the handling of the eggs, incubation temperature and humidity, the correct food for the hatchlings, and so on, that it would have been easy to abandon all efforts as an impossible task."

On this note, the microphone is handed to the youngest speaker of the day, ten-year-old David Luzon who, along with four other young boys and girls of similar age, has traveled by boat from Isabela Island 40 miles away to represent their fledgling club, "Friends of the Tortoises." As school children in the little settlement of Villamil (population 1,469), they are dedicated to caring for the tortoises in a similar breeding center on their own island. Villamil is a booming but controversial fishing village at the center of some disquieting tortoise poaching and new goat introductions, and as Luzon talks about volunteering to feed the baby tortoises and clean their pens, it becomes clear that success will hinge more and more on the views of Galápagos children.

That the battle to save these magnificent reptiles has still not been won can be seen just to the north of where David and his friends live. There on Aldeco Volcano, burgeoning hordes of goats have recently eaten their way into prime tortoise habitat. Breeding so fast that their numbers may already exceed 100,000, the goats outnumber the ancient reptiles on the order of 20 to 1. A massive goat control effort currently being planned will be the most ambitious of its kind ever undertaken anywhere in the world.

Baby One Thousand Goes Home magazine layout - big saddleback tortoise

As cameras roll, scientists record Baby One Thousand's vital statistics one last time. At just over three years of age, she weighs 2.2 pounds and her curved shell measures nine inches in length - well into the "safe" bracket to be released into the wild with no further support, her cushy days of permanently available food and water over. As a final precaution, a personal identification transponder with an ID number detectable by a small hand-held computerized reader is affixed under the skin of her hind leg, and she's ready to go.

The following morning at 2:00 am, 38 people pile onto the park's fast patrol boat. Baby One Thousand, along with 64 tortoise brothers and sisters, is aboard, too, in a well-ventilated crate on deck. As anchor is dropped at sunrise, the little reptiles crane their spindly necks to peek through the air vents. Two hours later, a sweaty throng of park wardens, scientists, newsmen, school kids and other volunteers heads into the island with a load of tortoises.

Like everyone else, Isabel Ontaneda of Ecuador's Ministry of Tourism holds her cargo gingerly. She lifts Baby One Thousand up one last time and flashes a winning smile as she speaks a few parting words on behalf of her government.

Then, making their debuts on home ground, Baby One Thousand and her tortoise cohorts scramble away into the nearest thickets. Within minutes, the 1,000th returnee to Española starts nibbling at tender vines sprouted by recent rains as if she'd been here all of her life. She will have plenty to learn in order to survive her first dry season. Like finding the age-old rock slabs with drizzle-catching hollows in them, polished smooth by her thirsty ancestors. Or zeroing in on the commotion of native doves and mockingbirds gathered around fallen giant cacti that provide both nutrition and moisture.

That it is possible for tortoises like her to learn those skills becomes clear with the sound of cracking branches in another direction: A much larger tortoise - a male in his prime - is watching. He eyes the crowd suspiciously, head raised high like a periscope, ready to take cover under a dense thorn bush. Most likely, he is one of the first-ever young returnees, now 29 years old.

Some, like him, have even started breeding on their own, yet their story is not complete and thus illustrates the difficulties involved in restoring the species. So far, it appears, many wild hatchlings of these earlier returnees have fallen prey to Galápagos hawks, a natural predator that has coexisted with tortoises for eons. Although this has created a new challenge for the tortoise restoration scheme, the presence of this big male, so many years after his own reintroduction, signals that long-term success is within sight. It is almost as if this well-adjusted veteran of Española has stopped by just to provide his own welcome home for Baby Tortoise One Thousand, who, in all likelihood, will herself be living - and breeding - here for another century to come.

Tui De Roy and Mark Jones formerly lived in the Galápagos Islands. They returned to cover the repatriation of Baby One Thousand, which took place on March 25, 2000. De Roy is a roving editor of this magazine. Jones is a nature photographer.

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