These turtles saved their species from extinction. Now they are back home

These turtles saved their species from extinction. Now they are back home

(CNN) – Island life faces 15 giant turtles recently released as they re-settled on their island after decades in a breeding captive program.

Turtles, 12 females and three males, have been working to save their species from extinction. Now they are slowly returning to their roots on the island of Española in Galapagos, joining more than 2,300 descendants from the program.

Representatives from the Galapagos National Park Directorate and the Galapagos Conservancy returned the 15 turtles to their home island on June 15. Each turtle was equipped with a GPS satellite device so that researchers could monitor their movements every day.

Washington Tapia, director of the giant turtle restoration initiative through Galapagos Conservancy, has been tracking where they have been since returning to nature.

The 15 giant turtles returned to Española Island in mid-June to save their species from extinction.

Andrés Cruz / GTRI – Galapagos Conservancy

“It’s amazing because everything is in the same place,” says Tapia. “Two women moved about a mile from the (original) place.”

Tapia says turtles tend to move when they need to find food, and once thrown in a location with a large food source – Opuntia cacti – they won’t have to move for almost a month.

When they move, Tapia says she’s interested in seeing how male turtles interact with the newer male turtles that have returned to the island in recent decades.

A giant turtle that has returned, named Diego, has contributed to about 40% of the offspring repatriated to the island. His return came almost 80 years after his removal.

For the last 55 years of the program, which is located on Santa Cruz Island, the chicks have been transferred to Española at the age of about five. Over the years, the breeding program has brought 1,900 turtles back to the wild. Today, there are more than 2,300 turtles due to the natural reproduction that occurs on the island.

Diego is the father of about 40% of the descendants he brought to the island.

Diego is the father of about 40% of the descendants he brought to the island.

Andrés Cruz / GTRI – Galapagos Conservancy

Returning females weigh an average of 77 kilograms and males weigh about 120 kilograms.

While the final transfer of the giant turtles took place in mid-June, it is initially expected to take place in March. The trip had to be postponed for three months due to the pandemic.

Prior to the transfer, Tapia said the turtles should be quarantined for two months – but not because of corona.

The food that turtles eat leaves seeds in their digestive system. It’s a great way to keep the ecosystem afloat, according to Tapia, but it can also import foreign plants to the island.

As soon as the quarantine was over, Tapia led the team that transported the turtles to their final home. It was a bittersweet moment for Tapia, who has worked closely with turtles in recent years.

“It’s like sending your kids to college,” says Tapia. “You’re happy but sad at the same time.”

The giant turtles were transported to Las Tunas, where there are a large number of Opuntia cacti or prickly pears.

The giant turtles were transported to Las Tunas, where there are a large number of Opuntia cacti or prickly pears.

Andrés Cruz / GTRI – Galapagos Conservancy

The turtles were transported at the end of the rainy season, which was the last possible moment they could have moved, according to Tapia. When the drought starts, it is harder for turtles to find food.

If they could not make the transfer in June, Tapia said it would have to delay the transfer by a year.

In six months, a team will visit Española to see how turtles adapt.

In addition to GPS devices in the animals, the researchers also placed 40 cameras that are activated by movement on the island. Unlike GPS data, they cannot access the cameras until they visit the island.

Tapia has been working with turtles for years and said she’s excited to see the camera footage and see how they adapt to their new home.

Created in the mid-1960s, the Española program is one of the most successful captive breeding and breeding programs in the world.

The return of the turtles to the island marks the official end of the program.

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