The giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands represent one of the most well known tourist attractions in the world – and it's no surprise why. These magnificent reptiles are a wonder to behold. They can grow to be up to 880 pounds and almost 6 feet in length, live up to 200 years, and famously served as inspiration for Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Travelers flock to the islands off the coast of Ecuador to see these gentle giants, either in protected man-made enclosures or in the wild.
Since Sunday, the world has been mourning Lonesome George, the last known individual of the Pinta Island subspecies of Galapagos giant tortoise who died earlier this week from what scientists have determined are natural causes. Now, just 10 of the original 15 subspecies of Galapagos giant tortoises are left.
How did Lonesome George come to be the last of his kind? And what happened to the other four subspecies that have disappeared into extinction? Unfortunately, the answer is a long history of unsustainable human exploitation.
In the 1600s, the Galapagos Islands were a popular stop for buccaneers, who would gather tortoises onto their ships and store them live for many months and use them for fresh meat. In later centuries, whalers, settlers, and other visitors to the islands hunted these creatures for meat and oil. In 1958, fishermen seeking a new source of food introduced feral goats to Pinta Island, where Lonesome George and the rest of his surviving brethren lived. The feral goats quickly multiplied and devoured almost all of the island's vegetation. As a result, the Pinta Island subspecies of tortoise was thought to be completely wiped out – until a surprised scientist discovered Lonesome George in 1971. The population of all Galapagos giant tortoises was estimated to have dropped from 250,000 individuals in the 1600s to only 3,000 individuals in the 1970s.
Thanks to conservation efforts, including the establishment of Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation, the current population of Galapagos giant tortoises has risen to about 15,000. The death of Lonesome George is a sad reminder of nature's fragility and our own responsibility to protect it. As travelers, we are given the gift of experiencing beautiful wildlife, sometimes in the world's most delicate ecosystems. We come to deserve this gift only by being aware of own impact and taking the necessary steps to do no harm.
If we want the many treasures of the Galapagos Islands to survive for generations, it is imperative for us to travel sustainably. Sustainable tour operators and cruises in the Galapagos Islands operate in such a way that does not harm the islands' plants or wildlife. They also contribute to local conservation efforts headed up by regional or international nonprofit organizations.
Here's a list of some responsible Galapagos tours and cruises on SustainableTrip.org: