The San Diego Zoo has one of the largest colonies of Galápagos tortoises in the world. We have had these giants in our collection since 1928, making them the oldest residents in the Zoo. That’s the year when Charles Townsend of the New York Zoological Society began his efforts to save the tortoises from extinction by collecting juvenile tortoises and setting up colonies for them in North American zoos. These tortoises weighed between 11 and 30 pounds (5 to 13 kilograms), and it would be years before they reached breeding size.
In 1933, an adult tortoise was brought from Isabela Island and weighed a respectable 475 pounds (215 kilograms). Named Speed at the time, he lived at the Zoo until his death (at an estimated 150 years old) in 2015, and was our largest tortoise. The original tortoises sent to the San Diego Zoo (yes, 9 of them are still with us!) are well over 100 years old today. Our first Galápagos tortoise hatching occurred on October 21, 1958. Since then, we’ve had 94 successful hatchings at our Zoo.
One of our tortoises, a large male named Gerty, participated in the making of the 1941 movie Malay, with Dorothy Lamour and Jack Haley. In the film, the hero is very thirsty after hours in the jungle and at long last comes to a beautiful pool of water. Sitting down on a log, he is badly frightened to discover that his “log” is a live alligator. He rushes to the bank, where he sits on a large stone. The stone, of course, turns out to be Gerty.
Currently, our tortoise herd numbers 16 individuals, representing at least five subspecies. Numbers painted on each animal’s shell help the keepers identify their charges: white-numbered tortoises are males, red numbers indicate females. Each tortoise has its own unique personality: some are really shy while others are more interactive with their keepers, stretching up for a neck rub or to eat right out of the keeper’s hand.
Our tortoise yard was remodeled in 2010 to include a touchable collection of replica tortoise shells and a more spacious, heated barn with a deep, indoor nest area, walls coated with a special cushiony rubber to prevent shell injury, and skylights and windows to give the building a bright, airy feel.
Finding a way to summon them into the barn at night was challenging, yet the answer may be clear as a bell—a cowbell, that is! Starting off with baby steps, keepers ring the bell and offer a small pile of carrots in front of the tortoises so they learn to associate the sound of the bell with delicious treats, gradually increasing the distance over time, where a jackpot of treats await. Cowbell training may also come in handy for weighing the tortoises; keepers ring the bell and offer rewards once the animal is on the scale, making the process easy for all!
Years ago, Zoo visitors had direct contact with the tortoise herd, and many people remember “riding” on the tortoises as children. Times change, and since our tortoises are ambassadors for an endangered species, we have new ways for people to connect with our tortoises. A life-size Galápagos tortoise bronze figure allows guests to “sit on a tortoise” for photos.
And we now have an interactive zone for close encounters: when a keeper is present, guests can enter the zone and feed vegetable snacks to the tortoises and, perhaps, offer a neck scratch, which the animals love! Tortoises are attracted to the colors found in flowers, which are one of their favorite foods. Try wearing your brightest clothing, and see if you get the attention of a Galápagos tortoise!
The Galápagos Islands were discovered in 1543 by Spanish explorers. The animals on these islands had never seen humans, and there were no large predators there to hunt them. They were completely unafraid, because they had never been threatened. But the humans became a threat to the tortoises. They hunted them for food for many years, and settlers also introduced new animals to the islands—goats and cattle ate the plants the tortoises needed, and pigs rooted for tortoise eggs and ate them.
When pirates, whaling ships, and merchantmen came through the Galápagos Islands from the 17th through 19th centuries, sailors loaded the large tortoises on their ships to use for food during the rest of their long voyage. Tortoise populations that once numbered in the tens of thousands were reduced to thousands, then hundreds, and even tens. What nature had taken millions of years to create, humans had nearly destroyed in a few generations.
By 1959, when the Galápagos tortoise was in danger of becoming extinct, the Ecuadorian government stepped in and created the Galápagos National Park to protect tortoise habitat. Although visitors are allowed on the islands, these visits are strictly regulated. All groups must have a guide and are asked to stay on the paths so the vegetation isn’t trampled and the animals are not disturbed.
In 1969, San Diego Zoo Global became a partner with the Charles Darwin Research Station on the Galápagos Islands, funding a new tortoise-rearing facility and helping with captive propagation and release programs. Today, the greatest threats to the tortoises come from introduced nonnative species such as rats, dogs, and cats, which eat tortoise eggs and young tortoises. This is one reason why Research Station staff give hatchlings there a headstart by raising them until they are big enough to survive on their own. They also must still compete for food with nonnative goats and cattle. At best, there are about 10,000 to 15,000 tortoises living today on the Galápagos Islands.
As Hood Island tortoises are so rare (estimates were 12 females and 3 males in the 1970s), the Zoo’s male, Diego, was sent to the Charles Darwin Research Station in 1976 to be part of the breeding program there. So far, he has fathered hundreds of tortoises!
In 2012, renowned geneticist Oliver Ryder, Ph.D., was invited to an international workshop on the Galápagos Islands to plan the next 10 years of Galápagos tortoise conservation efforts. He is the director of genetics at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research and Kleberg Chair, as well as a creative problem solver with a deep capacity to understand the big conservation picture. The workshop utilized the expertise of people around the world in many different fields, including ecology, biology, horticulture, herpetology, physiology, genetics, and wildlife diseases, among others. Dr. Ryder was particularly pleased that the people who would be managing the areas and implementing the ideas, like park guards and local ecologists, were full participants.
Issues facing the delicate ecosystems of different islands, like invasive plant species (guava and blackberries), health and recruitment of wildlife populations, the elimination of nonnative species like goats and rats, and the containment of farm animals to protect native species, were addressed. “The San Diego Zoo has a long history of contributing to Galápagos tortoise conservation,” said Dr. Ryder. “This workshop was another great opportunity to provide thoughtful ideas and suggestions to the Galápagos authorities to guide conservation strategies into the next decade.