The Galapagos giant tortoise is a lumbering, long-living and loveable creature native to seven of the Galapagos Islands. Not only is it the largest living tortoise species, it’s also one of the longest living vertebrates in the world, with individuals having lifespans of more than 100 years in the wild (and some have lived for more than 170 years in captivity).
The life of the Galapagos giant tortoise appears to be stress-free and blissfully leisurely. They begin the day by basking in the morning sun for one or two hours, warming up their bodies in preparation for the day ahead. They then spend much of their time foraging — often nine hours each day — trundling around grazing on cacti, grasses, lichens, berries and fruits, the latter including melons and oranges.
But this peaceful existence belies a far darker history, one which threatened the very existence of the Galapagos giant tortoise. When they were first discovered in the 16th century, the total wild population was around 250,000. By the 1970s, however, their numbers had diminished to just 3,000 individuals.
This drastic decline in numbers was, unsurprisingly, the result of human activities. Sailors, pirates and explorers soon discovered that the giant tortoises were ideal for keeping on board their ships as an important source of fresh food. By most accounts, the tortoises were also delicious and were highly sought-after by seafarers passing near the archipelago.
The population decline continued in the 19th century with the further settlement of the islands. Animals were increasingly introduced to the Galapagos, including pigs, dogs, cats and black rats, which ate young tortoises and tortoise eggs. Poaching and increased tourism also put a strain on the tortoise population. Protected status, captive breeding and other conservation measures have now helped the population increase to around 19,000 individuals, but the species remains vulnerable.
Read more about the Galapagos Giant Tortoise at Galapagos Conservation Trust.
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