Over the last century, Earth’s wild places have seen startling declines in biodiversity. In 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services found that one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction. The main cause? Human activity. Habitat loss and fragmentation, climate change, over-consumption, human-wildlife conflict and pollution are major causes of this decline. Invasive species also pose threats to species across the globe.
The Galapagos Islands: An Ecological Treasure
The Galapagos Islands are a biodiversity hotspot that inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in 1835. The Galapagos is made up of 19 volcanic islands that vary drastically in landscapes, ranging from jagged, jet-black lava fields on Santiago Island to powdery-soft beaches on Mosquera Islet. The islands represent a living museum and showcase of evolution that continues to enchant all of us. About 80% of land birds, 97% of reptiles and land mammals, and more than 30% of plants in the Galapagos exist nowhere else in the world.
The thousands of endemic plant and animal species in the Galapagos make the islands an ecological treasure. The islands are six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador, and their isolation and terrain mean that many species have not changed much since prehistoric times. The convergence of four ocean currents and the isolation of these islands create a variety of ecosystems that host unique biodiversity. Many species aren’t able to migrate or adapt in response to changing climatic conditions or invasive species, making them particularly vulnerable.
Species loss in the Galapagos has been caused largely by global climate change, invasive species, illegal fishing and the ecosystem-changing impacts of human activity. Currently, there are 150 species listed as endangered or critically endangered. Today’s giant tortoise populations are just 10% of their historical numbers and occupy only 35% of available habitat. Giant tortoises are the architects of the healthy terrestrial ecosystems in the Galapagos. Their grazing and seed dispersal make them important to the islands’ overall biodiversity.
Thankfully, new initiatives in the Galapagos and across Latin America’s Pacific archipelagos and islands are seeking to rediscover and reintroduce lost species. The “Re:wild: The Search for Lost Species” initiative is led by scientists looking for plants, animals and fungi that have been lost to science for at least 10 years.
Fernandina Giant Tortoise Found After 113 Years of ‘Extinction’
One of the island’s most famous species, the giant tortoise, arrived in Galapagos from mainland South America 2 to 3 million years ago. Since then, 14 different species of giant tortoise have evolved, all varying in morphology and distribution across the islands. Twelve species are living; however, they remain threatened. One species, Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni, nicknamed Lonesome George, went extinct in 2012. After Lonesome George was found on Pinta Island, located in the north of the Galapagos archipelago in 1972, he became a symbol of the plight of endangered species.
The Fernandina giant tortoise, Chelonoidis phantasticus, was last seen in 1906. Since then, it was believed that the species had gone extinct. That was until February 17, 2019, when rangers from Galapagos National Park and scientists from the Galapagos Conservancy’s Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative found an adult female, estimated to be more than 100 years old, on the island of Fernandina. The team believes there might be more, but another expedition will be needed to confirm. Fernandina is the youngest and most volcanically active of the Galapagos Islands, and this rugged environment is believed to be responsible for the tortoise’s decline.
Rediscovering a species previously thought to be lost is a challenging endeavor that requires local interviews, habitat exploration expeditions and the collection of eDNA. Scientists believe that the female Fernandina giant tortoise found can become an icon of hope, and they are looking for a suitable mate for her to continue the lineage of this once-lost species.
Re-wilding efforts have successfully prevented the extinction of the Pinzón giant tortoise (Chelonoidis duncanensis) and the Española giant tortoise (Chelonoidis hoodensis). In the last 60 years, more than 9,000 tortoises have been reared in captivity and released to the wild. Scientists also rely on removing invasive species that threaten habitat and reproduction to successfully make these transitions back into the wild.
Galapagos Land Iguana Returns to Santiago Island
Invasive species have caused ecosystem-wide destruction across various islands. One victim of invasive species was the Galapagos land iguana that disappeared from Santiago Island in the 1830s. The last person to see the species in the wild on Santiago was the celebrated naturalist Charles Darwin in 1835. The iguana exists in the wild across other islands. Still, it was wiped out on Santiago due to invasives such as feral pigs, cats, goats and donkeys that monopolized essential food sources and preyed upon their eggs and young. These species were introduced across the archipelago by whalers and other mariners.
Like the giant tortoise, the Galapagos land iguana is an important seed disperser and ecosystem engineer. Therefore, reintroducing these herbivores will help stabilize the ecological health of Santiago Island. In 1997, scientists started Project Isabela to remove large, introduced mammals from Santiago Island, Isabela Island and Pinta island. In 2006, the project reported that Santiago was officially free of all large, introduced mammal—goats, pigs and donkeys. This helped set the stage for the eventual reintroduction of the Galapagos land iguana to Santiago Island.
In 2018, Galapagos National Park Directorate and international nonprofit Island Conservation transported 1,436 land iguanas from North Seymour Island to Santiago Island. The Galapagos land iguana was introduced to North Seymour in the 1930s, and the population has been able to populate successfully. As the population reached 5,000 and food availability declined, scientists hoped this effort would also help stabilize the populations on North Seymour. In 2022, scientists found lizards of different ages as well as unmarked specimens, indicating that their reintroduction to Santiago Island has been successful.
Flamingos in the Lagoon of Rabida Island
In 2022, experts found nests of the Galapagos flamingo, also referred to as the Caribbean flamingo, on the shore of a saltwater lagoon off Rabida Island. This was the first time in 20 years that they had been documented in this habitat. This success comes after 12 years of extensive invasive species removal efforts across the island. This work has been integral in efforts to regain ecosystem integrity and ensure the survival of native and endemic species. Radiba Island is also home to sea lions, white-cheeked pintails, pelicans, boobies and nine different species of finches.
New Efforts to Re-Wild the Galapagos
Re:wild, Island Conservation and Galapagos National Park Directorate have unveiled a 10-year plan to work with local communities to re-wild Latin America’s Pacific archipelagos. The first phase of this work will focus on the Galapagos Islands, specifically Floreana Island. These partners will work together to restore Floreana Island, home to 54 threatened species, and reintroduce 13 locally extinct species.
Floreana Island is unique in that the island has never had endemic rodents. Therefore, when invasive species began to arrive on the island in the 20th century, local wildlife didn’t have any evolutionary advantages that would help them cope. Scientists and conservationists will be able to successfully reintroduce 13 locally extinct species to Floreana Island once the culprit of their extinction, invasive species such as rats, have been eradicated.
Once Floreana Island can support healthy ecosystems of reintroduced wildlife, Re:wild and partners will be able to reintroduce genetically similar Floreana giant tortoises from Isabela Island to Floreana Island. As ecosystem engineers and seed dispersers, their presence on the island will also support the reintroduction efforts of Floreana mockingbirds and even Galapagos hawks. Since 2017, Re:wild has found eight of its 25 most wanted lost species!
Support Efforts to Find Lost Species
As the official travel partner of World Wildlife Fund, Natural Habitat Adventures works with some of the world’s most accomplished scientists to develop the best nature travel adventures on the planet. On our Galapagos Hiking & Kayaking Adventure, travelers can see some of the rarest wildlife on Earth. At the Charles Darwin Research Station, you can visit the world-famous giant tortoise-rearing center in Puerto Ayora, the main town of Santa Cruz. Here, international scientists conduct research dedicated to conserving the unique habitats and species of the Galapagos. You’ll also visit the protection pens where hatchlings are bred to help increase depleted tortoise populations. Traveling with Nat Hab means that your expedition supports re-wilding efforts in the Galapagos.
With approximately 14 guests led by two Expedition Leaders, this trip offers the smallest group size in the Galapagos. Our Galapagos Hiking & Kayaking Adventure offers an exclusive small-group nature immersion led by the islands’ most experienced guides.