baby tortoise found on the Galapagos Island of Pinzon.

One of the first baby tortoise seen on Pinzón in over 100 years. Photo by James Gibbs.

Good news about the environment seems to be a rarity these days, which makes this story all the more enjoyable to share. The Pinzón Island saddlebacked tortoise, a species that once seemed almost certain to join its cousin, the Pinta Island tortoise (of Lonesome George fame), in the sad annals of human-caused extinction in the Galapagos Islands, appears to be making a remarkable comeback.

In December, a team of researchers conducting a population survey on Pinzón found 10 baby saddlebacks. They are believed to be the first Galapagos giant tortoises to be hatched and reared on the island in as many as 150 years, and a hopefull sign that the once critically endangered species is crawling back from the very brink of extinction.

The story of the Pinzón tortoise’s decline began in the 17th and 18th century, when rats arrived on the the island aboard the ships of buccaneers and whalers. The rats, not surprisingly, ate whatever they could, including tortoise eggs and nestlings.

When the Galapagos National Park was established in 1959, there were only about 100 tortoises left on the island, thanks to the rats, and they were all getting on in years. In the early 1960s, the park embarked upon an ambitious campaign to save the species. Eggs were rounded up, hatched, and the young tortoises were reared in captivity. Once they were big enough to fend off the ravenous rats, the young tortoises were returned to the island and released into the wild.

baby pinzon island tortoise

Photo by James Gibbs.

But as long as the rats remained, there was never any real hope that the tortoises could truly reestablish themselves on the island and survive there without ongoing human intervention. Then in 2012, the park launched Project Pinzón, an ambitious initiative to rid the island of the invaders once and for all. The plan: to helicopter in 40 tons of poisoned rat bait and disperse it around the island. Eradicating rats with poison had already worked on other islands, after toxicity trials on non-target species (such as reptiles) had been carried out.

James Gibbs, who headed up the tortoise population survey, says that they searched high and low for signs of rats, but none were found, seemingly to their surprise. He also says, in a piece he wrote for the Galapagos Conservancy blog, that there could be as many as 300 baby tortoises, which are notoriously difficult to spot, now roaming the island. In addition to the ten youngsters they found, Gibbs says his team encountered around 300 other tortoises, which means there could be as many 600 individuals living on the island.

Now, of course, the challenge is to make sure rat don’t find there way back onto the island.