It’s been more than a century since researchers last spotted the Fernandina Giant Tortoise (Cheloloidis phantasticus) in the wild; in fact, it has been so elusive that many conservationists thought it went extinct. However, in a refreshing turn of events, scientists happened upon a wild female lurking around on the Galápagos island of Fernandina on Sunday, February 17th.
Image Credit: W. Tapia/Galápagos Conservancy
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the scientists experienced a sudden rush of excitement and approached the tortoise to get a closer look. They performed a few quick tests on the tortoise and concluded that she was approximately 100 years old and that she was healthy, albeit marginally underweight for her kind; consequently, she’s being cared for at the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Breeding Center.
“The conservation of Galápagos giant tortoises has been my world for 29 years, and I have been involved in many exciting events, including the discovery of a new species of tortoise. But this time, the emotion I feel is indescribable,” said Wacho Tapia of the Galápagos Conservancy and Director of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative.
“To find a living tortoise on Fernandina Island is perhaps the most important find of the century. The only live specimen of the species from Fernandina was found 112 years ago. Now we just need to confirm the genetic origin of this female. She is old, but she is alive!”
The last official sighting of a Fernandina Giant Tortoise occurred in 1906, and the tortoise’s unexplained disappearance prompted the International Union for Conservation of Nature to distinguish it as a ‘critically endangered’ species on the organization’s Red List. Today, the IUCN estimates that there could be anywhere from 0-5 wild Fernandina Giant Tortoises in existence, and the scientists have just found one.
Furthermore, the scientists allegedly found traces of tortoise droppings and tracks, which indicate that there could be others alongside the female they discovered. As you might come to expect, this revelation has triggered a full-scale search for another Fernandina Giant Tortoise in the Galápagos – preferably a male – such that perhaps they’ll mate and produce offspring.
If the circumstances are as dire as the picture the IUCN has painted, then this could be our only hope of reviving the nearly-fallen species. It will, without question, be interesting to see the result of these efforts; after all, it’s not every day conservationists find a species that has eluded them for more than a century and get a chance to save the day.