In February 2019, Galapagos National Park warden Jeffreys Málaga tracked down a giant tortoise on the Galapagos Island of Fernandina. It is an understatement to say that this was something of a surprise, because the existence of this species rested fair and square on the saddlebacked shell of just one tortoise, a single, large male discovered well over a century ago.
I have never set foot on Fernandina. I would love to. It is the youngest and most pristine of all the islands in Galapagos, a highly active, textbook-like volcano sitting atop the hotspot in the far west of the Archipelago. It is rarely visited by humans. But on 2 April 1906, naturalists Rollo Beck and Joseph Hunter began the ascent of the volcano in search of giant tortoises. The climb was “most arduous”, so tricky that Hunter quickly turned back. Beck pushed on up the volcano, where he came across “a few old droppings of a tortoise”. A closer inspection revealed that the animal had been eating candelabra cactus, a particularly spiny species that tortoises on other islands rarely touch. Beck camped just beneath the main crater and the next morning climbed to the rim and peered into the caldera some 300 metres beneath him. Where he stood, on a plateau “covered with rank glass” and some Optuntia, he was in “an excellent place for tortoises”, but could find neither animals nor tracks nor faeces. On his way back to the shore, however, Beck stumbled upon some fresh tracks. Crawling through the undergrowth, he eventually found an old male feeding on grass beside the trail. “Getting my pack, I ate supper and skinned the tortoise by moonlight,” he wrote in the Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences.
For the rest of the 20th century, this singular male tortoise – CAS No. 8101 – was the only known individual ever collected on Fernandina, his impressive saddlebacked shell and the ethereal status of his species giving birth to the scientific name Testudo phantasticus (now Chelonoidis phantasticus). He was just one of 264 giant tortoises and more than 75,000 specimens collected during the expedition, from which herpetologist John Van Denburgh was able to describe “fourteen or fifteen distinct races of gigantic land tortoises”.
In the decades that followed, as the human settlements on San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabela began to expand, very few people ventured onto Fernandina’s hostile slopes and many doubted whether any more tortoises would ever be found there. “It is not improbable that tortoises were largely destroyed on that island from time to time by lava flows and intense heat,” wrote Charles Haskins Townsend in 1925.
But when the first serious scientific expedition to Fernandina took place in 1964, as part of the Galapagos International Science Project, John Hendrickson noted that the island is “very much more poorly known than any of the others” and with no feral goats and Ecuador recently turning most of Galapagos into a no-go national park, he was hopeful that remnant populations might survive. More excitingly, this expedition brought back reports of “unmistakable tortoise tracks” and fresh tortoise droppings.
This piqued the interest of British mountaineer Eric Shipton, famous for his exploration of Everest in 1930s and for photographing a footprint of what might have been the “abominable snowman”. In 1965, Shipton scaled Fernandina and looked down into its caldera some 700m beneath him, its black walls forming a circle of almost 20km in diameter and rising out of “a pool of silver mist”. He resisted the urge to climb down into the “vast cauldron”.
Shipton was back in 1968, with a plan to carry large plastic sheets up to the rim of Fernandina’s crater. The rainwater they’d catch would, he reckoned, “soon provide several gallons” and would allow a series of sorties down from the crater rim into the discrete patches of habitat that might hold tortoises. Unfortunately, a few days earlier, when half way up Alcedo volcano on Isabela, Shipton and his fellow explorers had watched the crew of a small fishing vessel raid their unattended camp on the beach. When they returned all the plastic sheets had been stolen. This meant the team had to descend into Fernandina’s crater where there was a sulphurous lake. “The water tasted like Epsom salts – but it was bliss,” wrote Shipton in his autobiography That Untravelled World. They spent a week in the crater. It was February 1968, just months before a dramatic eruption that would have killed them all. After an extensive search, Shipton and friends found no signs of tortoises and was is said that he came away feeling that there was a greater chance of finding a Yeti.
The discovery of an elderly female tortoise on Fernandina in 2019 therefore caused considerable excitement. She was named Fernanda and, like Lonesome George before her, was shipped from her native island to the breeding centre on Santa Cruz. A recent genetic analysis that compared the DNA from Beck’s 1906 specimen and Fernanda strongly suggests that they are extremely closely related and significantly different from any other tortoise population in the Archipelago. “These results imply the continued existence of [a] lineage long considered extinct, with a current known population size of a single individual,” wrote the authors.
A population size of one! If future expeditions to the island locate a male tortoise, it is possible that captive breeding could bring the Fernandina tortoise back from the brink of extinction. But I know what Galapagos champion Felipe Cruz would have said because he said it about Lonesome George. A population with one individual is an extinct species. With finite resources, it might be better to conserve what we still have rather than invest in a costly and lengthy de-extinction.