In yet another distressing incident of endangered species trafficking, 123 young giant tortoises have been stolen from a breeding facility in the Galápagos Islands.
"They were all taken at once, 123 in all. It was a robbery," Washington Paredes, a local politician, told AFP. “The turtles are just there. If somebody wants to go in by night and steal, they can,” he added, explaining that the Isla Isabella compound does not have many security measures.
The volcanic islands of the Galápagos archipelago, 906 kilometers (563 miles) off the coast of Ecuador, are home to many endemic organisms, including several species – or subspecies, depending on who you ask – of the iconic giant tortoise. Of the estimated 15 morphologically distinct types of Galápagos giant tortoise living when humans first arrived on the islands in the late 16th century, four types are considered extinct and the rest range from threatened to critically endangered.
According to the Telegraph, the missing youngsters belonged to the Chelonoidis vicina and Chelonoidis guntheri varieties. C. guntheri also referred to as the Sierra Negra tortoise, are found on Isla Isabela near the Sierra Negra Volcano. C. vicina, colloquially known as the Iguana Cove tortoise, occurs on the same island, mostly near the Cerro Azul volcano. Due to the two tortoises' overlapping range, many researchers have suggested grouping them into one species; yet, like other matters of Galapagan tortoise taxonomy, this is up for considerable debate.
Regardless of their exact scientific designations, all of the archipelago’s giant tortoises are remarkable specimens due to their impressive adaptations. Chelonoidis are the largest living turtles, growing up to 1.87 meters (6 feet) and 385 kilograms (849 pounds) during their 170-plus-year lifespans. Thanks to this enormous domed body plan, the tortoises have room for sizable internal water storage and fat deposits, which, combined with their slow reptilian metabolism, allows them to go for as long as a full year without resources.
Sadly, these traits are what caused the tortoises to be hunted to near-eradication. When explorers, pirates, and whalers began using the Galápagos islands as a layover base, they soon realized that the native tortoises made for excellent – and according to historical accounts, very tasty – long-term food stores. The slow-moving and defenseless creatures (they have no natural predators once they reach adulthood) were plucked from the islands in the hundreds of thousands and carried, live, onboard ships until their meat and internal fluids were required.
Widespread habitat destruction and the introduction of non-native species have also taken their toll, and scientists believe that the pre-human total population of about 250,000 was driven down to 3,000 by the 1970s. Strict protections combined with breeding programs like the one on Isla Isabella have helped the species rebound to around 20,000 individuals.
An investigation into this week’s theft has been initiated, according to AFP. The perpetrators could face up to 10 years in prison if caught. In uplifting news, earlier this year, 26 adults tortoises that had been taken from one of the islands and smuggled into Peru were returned unharmed.