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There’s nothing like a dispassionate gaze from an animal that’s old enough to have seen it all, to set you thinking.

In the bus ride out to look at Galapagos giant tortoises, we’d started to get our eyes tuned to distinguish tortoises from lava rocks in the paddocks. We’d also had the guide’s (friendly) lecture about National Park rules.

The Galapagos National Park was declared in 1959 to be all the land not in private ownership.  But Santa Cruz, the island where we were based, had had small settlements and farms for many years.   El Chato Ranch, where we were heading for tortoise-watching and lunch, was private land, and anyway, tortoises wandering from feeding place to feeding place don’t recognise National Park boundaries.  Solution: a tortoise carries National Park status with it. 

Galapagos canary

By the way, another of our guides, Luiz, told us of escorting a group of Japanese tourists who’d wanted to see all sixty-eight park sites over all the islands. It took 23 days.    

We’d been warned that because there had been quite a bit of rain down on the dry coastal lowlands, the tortoises might have enough grazing down there not to bother to come up to the higher wetter lands.  But there they were.  Carrying their contribution to the discovery of evolution, along with the National Park Rules, and the future economic development off the Galapagos, on their backs. That’s no light matter – just as well those are very strong shells.   Indeed perhaps strong enough to hold up the world.

“A wallow a day keeps the biters at bay.” Tortoises also have an arangement with finches to pick off parasites.

So – what have they seen? These tortoises’ great great grandparents could have seen the Galapagos Islands discovered in 1635.  They are certainly the descendants of tortoises which survived the depredations of pirates, sailors, whalers and sealers who collected them for food during the 1700s and 1800s.  Their fatal attraction?  As well as tasting good, you could stack them upside down in the hold of a ship, and they’d live to provide fresh meat for up to a year. Such a sensible solution for the people of the time.  The idea that animals suffer is, I remind myself, quite modern.

Their grandparents, or maybe even parents, may have been observed by Darwin in 1853.  Darwin’s realisation that tortoises from different islands had developed physical differences was part of the jigsaw he put together to confirm what he and others before him had been contemplating – evolution.  And now – they’re the observers – and the observed – in the convergence of the conservation and tourism undertakings.

Introduced Guava. Galapagos had no native edible fruit trees – so of course the settlers brought some in.

They’re participants in the problems too.  On Santa Cruz the tortoises have grown addicted to the exotic guava – so much sweeter than its endemic cousin.  They’re major carriers of the seeds, spreading the invasive trees.

The conservationists worry that if they remove the exotic guavas, that will allow more spread of other invasive nasties – like blackberry – which may be worse.  I think they’d also have cause to worry about very grumpy tortoises!


The other attraction at El Chato Ranch (apart from a good lunch) was the chance to see the geology from underneath! The Lava caves have been created by at least three lava flows over time re-melting and re-forming. Great to time-travel through.

Down to the coast again to Puerto Ayora and the Charles Darwin Research Centre where they breed and raise tortoises and other things, and much more thinking…

But perhaps that’s another post.  Promise.  

The bus and the tortoise…. one haring along behind us at 0.3km/hr