Two years after conservationists successfully carried out an aerial rodenticide bait drop on the Galápagos Archipelago; the island is showing signs of recovery in the form of ten newly hatched Pinzon tortoises. These baby giant tortoises are the first known to have survived in the wild in over 150 years.
The recent finding is a hopeful step forward in the ongoing effort to help the critically endangered species that once teetered on the edge of extinction because of a rat infestation on the island.
Rat Eradication on Pinzón
Rodents are one of the most serious threats to the endemic species of the Galápagos Islands. Rats prey on the eggs and hatchlings of birds and reptiles, and threaten fauna and native flora.
Over the past 40 years, small-scale control efforts targeted rodent populations in specific regions on the islands. In 2012, Bell Laboratories manufactured and donated pelleted bait for aerial baiting, designed to attract only rats. Bell’s specialized island conservation rodenticide was designed to attract rats and to rid the island of these invaders, thus saving endangered species and helping to focus a global spotlight on threatened wildlife populations. This was the first step in a planned 20 to 25-year process designed to rid the Galápagos Islands of non-native rats and mice for good.
Called the largest rat eradication in South America, the project is supported by the Galápagos National Park, California-based Island Conservation, the Charles Darwin Foundation, Bell Laboratories, The Raptor Center of the University of Minnesota and private partners.
The Return of the Pinzón Tortoise
Rats have prevented Pinzón Giant Tortoises from successfully reproducing in the wild for nearly 150 years. In order to stave off extinction, conservationists intervened in the 1960s by collecting the few unhatched eggs that remained on the island. The eggs were incubated, hatched and raised until they reached a “rodent-proof” size. Once the tortoises reached an age that they could fend for themselves, conservationists released the young tortoises back on the Pinzón islands.
After decades of conservation efforts, the discovery of ten hatched tortoises in December brings a promise of a successful elimination effort of invasive rodents. In a post on the Galápagos Conservancy blog, James Gibbs, an environmental scientist at State University of New York, details an encounter with the tortoises on a recent trip to Pinzón.
In his account, Gibbs estimates roughly 500 saddleback tortoises are now living on the island, a tripling of the population from six decades ago. While his team only found ten hatchlings, Gibbs noted that the discovery might be just the tip of the iceberg of what is to come.
“This new bunch of “little guys” is one of the important results of the rat eradication campaign,” notes Gibbs. “Tangible proof that with dedication, hard work, support, and heart, conservation efforts can effect positive change.”
While Gibbs and others were primarily looking for tortoises, they also looked hard for signs of invasive species. “We looked very hard for signs of rodents,” says Gibbs. “But we didn’t find droppings or any other sign of rodent activity.”
These results point to a common sentiment amongst conservationists. The growing tortoise population is showing an island in recovery, a reward and validation for the hard work of the Galápagos National Park Service and its collaborators - including Bell.