Monday, May 31, 2010

Project Espanola (in partial support of Project Pinta)

After months of preparation and a full day of training today here on Isla Santa Cruz, tomorrow morning at 5 AM yet another Galapagos Conservancy-sponsored expedition departs for Espanola. This one involves 24 Galapagos National Park guards covering the island searching for tortoises, albatross, and cactus for 10 days. It's pretty rough country. Espanola lost virtually all of its tortoises at one point, with the 15 remaining kept in captivity for the last 40 or so years where they have produced over 2,000 offspring that have been released back to the island. In the meantime goats, which were destroying the island's terrestrial ecosystems, have been eradicated. Lacking goats and tortoises, however, the woody vegetation has taken off, such that much of the island is a nearly impenetrable thicket. This may be a serious issue for the waved albatross, the world's only tropical albatross, that essentially only nests on Espanola. We are trying to discover how many albatross still nest in the interior areas and how are coping with the increase in woody vegetation. We are also surveying the giant arboreal cacti, which have not recovered well since the goats were removed for reasons not obvious. But a major focus is simply to get a precise estimate of how many tortoises are alive among the 2000+ that have been released. What does any of this have to do with Project Pinta? The Espanola tortoises are very closely related genetically to the Pinta tortoise. By determining how many tortoises are currently on Espanola the Galapagos National Park can consider that information in deliberations about what reproductive tortoises to eventually put on Pinta. Espanola tortoises might be a good option but only if relocating some of them to Pinta does not harm the re-establishing Espanola population. Basically we just need a good population estimate for Espanola - that will clarify the situation a great deal and whether translocating Espanola tortoises is even an option. So tomorrow we depart with maps and GPS to work in 7 teams of three to scour the island. We will surely learn a great deal and will share some of what was learned when we return in 11 days...

- James Gibbs, Isla Santa Cruz

Latest movements of the "Big Three"

The three large tortoises equipped with satellite tags have been reporting daily since release. The tags seem to be working beautifully. These are the animals that report directly via satellite so we can watch them move over the internet. The other 36 tortoises, like Klever, can only be found by Elizabeth et al. stumping around the brush tracking them with telemetry equipment. Below are traces of the locations reported from liberation site to the location today a week and a half later. The first image is the movements of the three from their release site overlain upon Google Earth imagery. The next image is of the same movements but placed upon 40 m contour lines. Some of the tortoises have made some dramatic daily moves of 100 m or move, then spend days at the same point. One tortoise went 300 m upslope and then returned downslope, apparently relocating to the very same spot several days later. These animals are settling into their new habitat, no doubt adjusting to a great abundance of new types of food (I suspect some of stops after days of roaming are "downtimes" for facilitating digestion). We will revisit these movements after 10 days when we get back from Espanola (more on that shortly) and see what these tortoises have been up to...

- James Gibbs, Santa Cruz Island

Sunday, May 30, 2010


We found him! After a hard day of work for all, crashing through walls of shrubs, Ben and Garrison found Klever at 550m elevation. Francisco and Elizabeth also found Bolivar 2 kilometers from the drop point! We hiked off-trail for 11 hours yesterday, today we rest.

Team Pinta

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Klever the elusive tortoise

The tortoises are roaming far and wide. We have been able to find them all so far, except one: Klever. He has been missing since the first day! But we will find him. This weekend we will make a trip to the top of Pinta to try to get his signal.

Team Pinta

Monday, May 24, 2010

Life Everywhere

The island seems to be teeming with life. Inquisitive finches, flycatchers, and doves are constantly flying up to our faces and even landing on our heads! Today Ben spotted a Galapagos Rail, a species that hasn't been reported on Pinta in decades! More to discover, the tortoises lead the way.

Team Pinta

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Images from the release


Here is a sampling of the many images collected during the Pinta tortoise release. This post is intended mainly to share some "visuals" from this experience as posts have been heavy on text. Most of these images were taken by Francisco Laso who as you can see has proven most talented with his camera. So, here goes....

this is a pre-trip photo of Elizabeth and her crew (l to r Ben, Garrison, Elizabeth, and Francisco).

`s the crew buying food in Proinsular for the upcoming two months...

...weighing tortoises prior to tag attachment and health screening (Joe Flanagan and James Gibbs lifting, Bolivar Guerrero readings the scales (some were up to 90 kg!)...

...Washington Tapia of the Galapagos National Park Service passing out PNG hats prior to the press event announcing the release....

...the first of 39 tortoises being transferred onto the beach on Pinta after the overnight trip from Santa Cruz Island...

...once on the beach the tortoises were trussed, suspended and gingerly carried up the lower slopes ...

...several kilometers later on the upper slopes...

...and a group photo of all the guardaparques who did the hard work of lugging the tortoises to their final destination in the interior of Pinta Island...

 at last....

We were all quite surprised at how quickly the tortoises began feeding (mere seconds after release) and even trying to mate with one another (despite being sterilized). Also the immediate impact on the habitat was stunning, as a result primarily of flattening of vegetation but also foraging. Moreover, finches and lava lizards quickly recruited to the disturbed areas. The process of tortoise-driven ecological engineering has begun, profoundly albeit in a small but expanding area.

We are tracking the three tortoises with satellite tags in real time and will share their movements with you shortly.

We are also working on transferring the replacement satellite modem to the field crew so you can hear from them more directly...

Cheers to all,

James Gibbs
-Santa Cruz

Thursday, May 20, 2010


There are now 39 tortoises roaming the slopes of Pinta!! I can’t stop smiling and want to shout it to the world. We traveled north on Sunday night on the Sierra Negra (Park boat) to arrive at dawn on Monday. The Ecuadorian Minister of the Environment and the Director of the Galapagos National Park came to celebrate the first arrival of a tortoise on Pinta since 1972. After the historic arrival of the first tortoises, the work began.

Twenty-four park rangers did the heavy work of moving the tortoises up the more than 3 km to their new home – a rather lush forested area, with palo santo and Pisonia trees, a few tall Opuntia cactus, and lots of forbs and grasses. Arriving at the end of the wet season, the tortoises have plenty of food to choose from.
The park wardens divided themselves into 11 teams of 2. Each team of two had approximately 350 m of sometimes very rocky trail. A team on the beach tied the tortoise in an upright position – hanging from a quinine pole (good use of an introduced species on Santa Cruz). Each pole had a foam pad tied on each end to protect the shoulders of the park rangers. The first pair of park rangers carried the tortoise up their stretch of trail, then handed it off to the next pair - often the hand-off was completed from shoulder to shoulder and on up the trail the tortoise went to the next pair of rangers. The eleventh pair carried it to its new home and released it.

At the release spot, the SUNY students were waiting to note down which tortoise had arrived, check the radio telemetry signal, and begin to learn the area the tortoises would inhabit.

Watching the tortoises upon arrival was thrilling. The moment they hit the ground, they were ready for action. They immediately began moving off through the vegetation, knocking down whatever stood in their path, finding juicy plants to forage on, and exploring their new world. Doves and lava lizards began using the pathways smashed down by the movements of the tortoises, and the third day, Joe Flanagan filmed a Galapagos dove landing on the back of a tortoise. All seemed right with the world.

The park rangers moved 15 tortoises up on Monday, another 15 on Tuesday, and the final 9 on Wednesday. Their work was fast and efficient. On the third day, most of them followed the final tortoise up to the release point to celebrate their labors and to see the tortoises in the natural world – a major change after having lived in captivity all of their lives, then in the hold of the ship for a few days, carried up the trail dangling from a pole, and finally to freedom.

Pinta has tortoises! It’s been 38 years since these giants walked there. Now they will help restore it to a more balanced state. Congratulations to the Galapagos National Park and all others involved in this massive effort.

Linda Cayot
Galapagos Conservancy


We have arrived on Pinta! Through an extraordinary effort by 25 park guards, the tortoises were carried 4km up the island to their new home. They are already moving and eating happily, so it seems. Now we are alone and can get to work getting to know them!

-Elizabeth and crew, Pinta Island, Galapagos

Note: Due to the failure of the satellite modem, blog updates will be communicated via text message from the satellite phone. Sadly, entries will thus be less frequent and more concise!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Final details...

After months of preparation we are now all waiting for the implementation phase to begin...which will be tomorrow at 3 PM when the 39 tortoises will be loaded on the Galapagos National Park's Sierra Negra, a large and fast work ship. The park guards who will do the actual work of the release will follow next at 6 PM, as will the science support team. Together we will all plow through the night aboard the Sierra Negra, first through the waters around Santa Cruz Island, then thread our way past Santiago Island and finally take a beeline to Pinta Island, where we will arrive at dawn, have a quick breakfast and start the process of unloading tortoises, ferrying them to shore, and cutting the trail up to the release area. The guardaparques will carry the tortoises. The plan at present is 4 guards per tortoise, with 4 other following in reserve to provide some relief. Some of the tortoises are in the 90 kg range - not so easy to carry on a litter over broken lava, through thick brush, and in intense heat. All the science crew's food, water and gear must be moved to shore and camp assembled. It will be a busy 3 days, and maybe 4 if more time is needed, to get all the work done.

Stay posted!

- James Gibbs, Santa Cruz Island

Friday, May 14, 2010

Last minute images from past week...

Depending on their size and carapace shape, the tortoises have been fitted with either a satellite tracker, a data logger (with satellite and VHF capabilities) or a VHF tag. The LARGE tortoise below is sporting a satellite tracker)

Additionally, since tortoises are reptiles and temperature is an important factor for where they decide to go, we have attached to all tortoises an "iButton" which is a small device that records the temperature of the tortoise through time. On the photo below the vhf tag on one of the tortoises and the ibuttons are visible on top of their shells)

Part of the preparation of the tortoises involved a health assessment, which involved measuring them, weighing them, taking a blood sample, and giving them a de-wormer. Below, Joe and James liffting a tortoise to weigh it. Many are in the 90kg range.

Finally, this is the "Before" shot from the entire Pinta Team. From left to right, Ben, Garrison, Elizabeth, and me (Francisco). We will stay behind on Pinta to monitor turtle movements and their effect on vegetation for two and a half month.

Now we must go meet the ministrer of the environment and say hello to the cameras. Wish us luck!!!

Francisco, Santa Cruz, Galapagos

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Quarantine tomorrow

So, it is the final night before we put all of our belongings into quarantine - everything that we own except for the clothes we´re wearing except for (maybe) a toothbrush. Park staff will then go through our things to make sure we won´t be transporting any invasive species. Two days of being smelly and then we get on the boat and we´re off to Pinta on Sunday night!

We´ve had many successes and a couple of problems in the past few days. On Monday and Tuesday we were able to outfit all of the tortoises with their movement monitoring devices and give them their final deworming. Now they are in special corrals, patiently waiting for their freedom. They are such beautiful, gentle animals, and I can´t wait to see them in their natural habitat, eating cactus and plowing down vegetation. Today we bought all of our food for 2 months, which went rather smoothly after all the lists and preparations we made.

Our main problem right now is that our satellite modem is still not working - although I´ve tried everything I can think of to make it work. This is a severe bummer, but it seems that we will still be able to rent a satellite phone from CDF and send text messages to post on the blog. The messages are limited to 160 characters, so we will have to practice our haiku-style writing. I will try:

Today I watched the tortoises fight over a giant leaf in their corral. I wondered if they would continue to stick together on Pinta or if they couldn´t wait to get away from each other.

Darn, that´s 182 characters. We´ll have to practice, but I think we will be able to convey some good anecdotes in a few text messages.

The other exciting news about town is that the Today Show film crew will likely be coming down for the release on Monday or Tuesday! Combined with the presence of the Minister of the Environment, this is turning out to be quite the event. I´ll tell the tortoises to be extra charismatic for the cameras, but I don´t think they´ll have to try too hard.

-Elizabeth, Santa Cruz, Galapagos

A long time coming

Hello tortoise enthusiasts,

We are getting closer and closer to seeing the first Galapagos giant tortoises step foot onto Pinta Island since Lonesome George left in 1972! This exciting step forward for conservation and the restoration of Pinta has been discussed, debated, and studied pretty much since that time.

Linda Cayot here. I first came to Galapagos in 1981 to study giant tortoises for my PhD - from Syracuse University (great to have another woman from the adjacent SUNY campus in Syracuse continuing on with tortoise work into the 21st century). Reviewing my journals from 1981 just before heading to Galapagos last week, I discovered that on my second day in Galapagos in March 1981, in a meeting with Bob Reynolds, the herpetologist of the Charles Darwin Research Station, we discussed the need to get tortoises back on Pinta. That was 29 years ago!!

Then in 1988, at the International Herpetology Workshop in Galapagos - it seemed like every work group ended up discussing what to do with Lonesome George and whether or not to put tortoises back on Pinta.

Over the past several years a group of us have been working toward this goal - so many people - Ole Hamann (Danish botanist who has worked on Pinta for decades), the folk of Project Isabela (Felipe Cruz, Karl Campbell, and others), Wacho Tapia of the Park, and on and on. A dream of many and a massive effort by even more.

When the Isabela Project was winding down at the start of this decade and a goat-free Pinta was a reality, the need for tortoises increased. They are the habitat engineers of Galapagos and important to the ecosystem in many ways - seed dispersal and in some cases germination, trampling and opening areas, and their constant eating of most species of forbs, grasses and shrubs. But ongoing genetics studies have not yet answered the question regarding which tortoises would be best for repopulating the island through release and reproduction.

In the meantime, Felipe Cruz suggested we sterilize the hybrid tortoises at the Tortoise Center and put them on Pinta to perform the role of the first habitat engineers post goat-eradication. Then we all got to work - Washington Tapia (Wacho) at the National Park, Joe Flanagan at Houston Zoo, me at Galapagos Conservancy, and James Gibbs at SUNY-ESF. Last fall, a group of veterinarians came down to sterilize the tortoises (Dr. Steve Divers of U of Georgia and Dr. Sam Rivera of Zoo Atlanta - along with Joe and some others). James started figuring out the monitoring part and Elizabeth joined in to do her Masters. Galapagos Conservancy participated in planning and to ensure critical funding and here we are.

May 2010 - I have been working to help achieve this goal for many years and next Monday it will be a reality. A dream come true. I can't wait.

Linda Cayot
Science Advisor
Galapagos Conservancy

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Hit the ground tortoise speed!

Hello world!

This is Francisco with a quick visual update of our activities since we arrived. We finally met face to face with everyone involved, including the 39 tortoises that will be re-populating Pinta. The tortoises are currently kept at the Charles Darwin Research Station and they are bigger than we expected! Their ages range from 15 - 100 yrs old, on average 40 yrs old.

For the past weeks they have been fed a special diet of stems and leaves (to avoid transporting Santa Cruz seeds to Pinta) and this week we will be on a special diet too (not stems and leaves, but nothing with viable seeds!)

As soon as we got here we started testing/programming the equipment. In the picture on above you see Garrison testing his telemetry skills. Elizabeth hid one of the VHF (Very High Frequency) tags in the bushes so we could try to find it. Its a bit like playing "Marco Polo", only that instead of a human voice you have a beep that gets louder as you get close to the device.

Our satellite/VHF tags that we will attach to the turtles to follow their movements seem to work fine. The picture on the right shows (from left to right) Garrison, Joe, James, Elizabeth, and Ben debating where to best place the satellite tags without harming the turtles or affecting their behavior.

Everything is running smoothly, except for the satellite modem that we planned to take with us to Pinta. For some inexplicable reason, it is not working in Galapagos (it did work in NY when Elizabeth tested it) ... I hope for our sake (and for the sake of the blog) that we are able to fix it...

That is it for now, wish us luck for tomorrow, when we will try to actually attach the tags to the tortoises! I expect it might be slightly challenging to keep these reptilian bulldozers from moving until we have finished our task...

-Francisco, Santa Cruz, Galapagos

Friday, May 7, 2010


We have arrived on Santa Cruz safe and sound! My heart skipped a beat with the first sight of an arboreal cactus as we were landing on Baltra, and I was dazzled by the blueness of the water on the ferry to Santa Cruz. Finally here. It is as beautiful as I thought it would be, and not nearly as hot!

Amazingly, we had no problem getting through customs with our 12 pieces of luggage, and all of the equipment seems to have arrived without damage. The whole crew is together now, and we saw the tortoises today (they seem like part of the crew, too). Ben, Garrison, and I had actually seen them yesterday when we were looking at the other tortoises at the CDRS, but we didn't realize that they were the ones. They were much livelier than the other larger tortoises, and one looked curiously at us for a long time - an instant connection. They are a lot bigger than I thought they'd be, which is good for the restoration aspect of the project (bigger tortoises have more impact), but maybe not so good for the porters who have to carry them up to the good habitat in the middle of the island!

We have begun scouting out the supermarkets for the food that we will buy early next week, and it looks like we will be able to get everything we need, if not everything we want. On Monday we will begin the process of attaching the transmitters and loggers to the tortoises. We will be leaving for Pinta on Sunday night of next week, which means we have to get everything ready by Thursday morning for quarantine.

I will post again soon with pictures. Now I am tired, and would like to gaze at the brilliant array of stars a bit before hitting the hay.

-Elizabeth, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, Galapagos

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

And we're off!

James and I leave in about an hour from Syracuse. My boyfriend, Kevin, will kindly drive us to NYC where we will meet up with Ben at the airport. We'll probably have 11 checked bags between the 3 of us...which will be fun. We'll fly to Guayaquil and meet up with Garrison, then the four of us will fly to Baltra in the late morning tomorrow. From there, it's a confusing series of busses and boats until we get to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. Francisco, Linda, and Joe will meet us there the next day - they're flying from Quito.

I'm so nervous, anxious, and already a bit exhausted, but the overwhelming feeling is of excitement. Soon I will be in the place that has occupied my thoughts for the last several months. Farewell Syracuse!

-Elizabeth, Syracuse NY

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Sigh of relief

Tomorrow we leave! I think, I hope, we have everything that we needed. All of the crucial equipment arrived just in time. All of the gps loggers, transmitters, satellite modem, solar panel, first aid kit - all of the really important stuff - made it within the last couple of days. And then there were a couple of scares when things didn't work right on the first try… It's been nerve-wracking to say the least. But I think we have all of our ducks in a row now! Everything is working, and now it's just the intricacies of packing… I think we'll have enough space for everything, but the weight is the problem. We're taking about 40 pounds of epoxy (for attaching the loggers) and all the electronics are heavy. The airline we're flying on, AeroGal, has pretty stringent weight requirements (20 kg or 44 pounds max per bag), so it will take a lot of shifting around to get the right weights. I hope to avoid huge overweight charges. Then it's just the trick of getting everything through customs… I don't think the sleepless nights will be done until we get to Pinta!

-Elizabeth, Syracuse NY