Galápagos Conservancy and our local partner Conservando Galápagos have a unique and critical role to conserve the Archipelago. We have a joint agreement with the Galápagos National Park Directorate to rewild all 13 extant species of the iconic Galápagos Giant Tortoises. To accomplish this, we use every tool available to accelerate the process of breeding, incubating, hatching, and rearing tortoises.
To recover critically endangered Galápagos Giant Tortoise populations, an innovative captive breeding and rearing program was launched in 1965 on Santa Cruz Island. Later, breeding centers opened on Isabela and San Cristóbal Islands. Eggs are either brought from the wild into the centers for hatching, or tortoises are encouraged to breed in captivity. The eggs are hatched and reared until the age of five when they are large enough to ward off predators. At that point, the tortoises are released into the wild.
Temperature within the incubators is critically important for both the survival of the growing embryos and to determine the sex of the hatchlings. In the wild, Galápagos Giant Tortoise eggs are incubated within the range of 72-93°F. Temperatures around 78°F produce mostly males, and 85°F produce mostly females. We aim to breed more females to rapidly increase the population of tortoises for wild release.
In the beginning of the breeding program, artisanal solar incubators built of wood and lined with cement were used to hatch baby tortoises. Later, electric hair dryers connected to timers were used to maintain a consistent ambient temperature for the eggs. Finally, in 2017, Iniciativa Galápagos supported the modernization of the Breeding Centers in Santa Cruz and Isbaela — with a new sophisticated automated incubator system that uses microcomputers to control and regulate the temperature in the incubators.
The program's first major success was in 1970, when the first 20 baby tortoises born in captivity were released to Pinzón Island. Since then, almost 9,000 juvenile tortoises have been released to their islands of origin. As many as a third of all Galápagos Giant Tortoises living in the wild today owe their existence to captive rearing operations. Because many threats to Giant Tortoises persist and tortoises remain at only 10% of their original abundance, the Galápagos National Park, with the support of Galápagos Conservancy and Conservando Galápagos, will continue to maintain three Breeding Centers. We are delighted to announce the re-opening of the San Cristóbal Breeding center in 2023! Today, the Breeding Centers host an additional 2,200 juvenile tortoises who will be released into the wild one day soon, with thousands more to come after them.