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.