WHEN WASHINGTON TAPIA found a Fernandina giant tortoise on its namesake island in the Galápagos, it was like winning an Academy Award.
“For me it was the most important achievement of my life because I have been working on tortoise conservation for 30 years,” says the director of the nonprofit Galápagos Conservancy’s Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative(GTRI) and leader of the expedition. “This was basically my Oscar.”
Tapia and a team of four rangers from the Galápagos National Park—Jeffreys Malaga, Eduardo Vilema, Roberto Ballesteros, and Simon Villamar—were overwhelmed when they found the female Chelonoidis phantasticus on Fernandina, an active shield volcano and the youngest of the Galápagos Islands.
The last time a confirmed sighting of the species was registered was in 1906. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had flagged the Fernandina giant tortoise on its Red List as possibly extinct until 2017, two years after Malaga came across the reptile’s feces in the park and three years after the inauguration of the GTRI. Its designation was then changed to critically endangered.
“It was a clear indication the tortoises were still there,” Tapia says.
On this particular Sunday, February 17, the team set out at 6 a.m. in search of green patches among the island’s innumerable lava flows. It wasn’t until around midday that they spotted possible tortoise feces on a patch measuring about a third of a square mile. When Tapia saw a tortoise bed—soil had been pushed aside and there were clear prints in the dirt from its carapace and feet—he knew they were close. Malaga was the first to spot the tortoise—at first, nearly 2.5 miles away and blending into a patch of vegetation—but it was a triumph for the whole team.
“It created hope for people to know conservation is possible and that changing human activities is necessary for it to continue,” Tapia said.
The female tortoise, thought to be roughly 100 years old, was taken by the team to a breeding center on Santa Cruz Island, a decision Tapia made because the area where she had been living had few food sources nearby, and, if left on Fernandina, finding her again would have been difficult. Tortoises tend to move around a lot, and the island, at over 230 square miles, is a large area to search. Its rugged terrain, caused by abundant lava flows, makes locating animals a challenge.
But Tapia and his team do expect to find more. During their search of Fernandina they came across more tortoise tracks in soil just over a mile from where they discovered the female. Another expedition to the island is planned for later this year.
In the meantime, they’ll take DNA samples from the female tortoise and send them to Yale University, where giant tortoise specialists are located, to confirm she is a Chelonoidis phantasticus. The process could take months, but Tapia has no doubts she’s the real thing.