PICTURED: Fern, the one and only Fernandina giant tortoise. Photo credit: Galapagos Conservancy.
After a year and change of waiting, Fern, the 100-year old giant tortoise, was confirmed as being the last known survivor of the Fernandina giant tortoise species, (Chelonoidis phantasticus), considered extinct for 112 years.
Finding a mate for Fern takes immediate priority for the Galapagos National Park Directorate and Galapagos Conservancy, and an expedition is already being planned for a September scouring of Fernandina Island where she was found.
Discovered in 2019, the giant female was transported back to the Santa Cruz Island giant tortoise breeding center where most Galapagos tortoise conservation is done. Fern’s blood was drawn to compare with the only sample of a Fernandina giant tortoise available, which happens to be a taxidermy male collected in 1906.
“One of the greatest mysteries in Galapagos has been the Fernandina Island Giant Tortoise. Rediscovering this lost species may have occurred just in the nick of time to save it. We now urgently need to complete the search of the island to find other tortoises,” said Dr. James Gibbs, Vice President of Science and Conservation for the Galapagos Conservancy and tortoise expert at the State University of New York.
While waiting for the tests to be run, the Galapagos Conservancy planned several expeditions to the island to look for more specimens, but several had to be cancelled due to volcanic eruptions.
Fernandina Island is the site of an active volcano and contains very rough terrain, yet when conservationists did eventually get to the island, tortoise tracks and scat were found indicating there may be more individuals living there.
It was common for sailors during the 19th and 20th centuries to move tortoises from one island to another, which is partly why the Conservancy was very hesitant to suggest Fern was in fact from the extinct species, as just because she was found on Fernandina, she could have been left there.
The Conservancy has now set up a fundraiser for a state-of-the-art expedition back to Fernandina to look for a male so Fern can get her Adam and Eve on. They hope to have experienced tortoise veterinarians and helicopters to search from the air, and transport any turtles they find back to the breeding center.
This story has ended badly before, and the team are desperate not to have a repeat of Lonesome George, the last Pinta giant tortoise who died in 2012.
“We desperately want to avoid the fate of Lonesome George,” said Danny Rueda Córdova, Director of the Galapagos National Park Directorate. “My team from the Park and Galapagos Conservancy are planning a series of major expeditions to return to Fernandina Island to search for additional tortoises beginning this September”.
Being the largest and slowest tortoises on earth, they can’t be that hard to find can they?