The Giants of Galapagos – Visit to the Tortoises of San Christóbal

Tortoises on the Galapagos Islands were subject to extensive overexploitation for food by sailors and settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, populations are threatened by invasive species, habitat loss, poaching and the illegal wildlife trade. Conservation programs like conservation breeding and reintroduction are showing great success, and the tortoise populations are slowly recovering.
Giant Tortoise Galapagos

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Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado on San Cristóbal

The Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado is one of three tortoise nurserys on Galapagos. It is part of the Galapagos National Park in the southeast of San Cristóbal Island. In the reserve, giant tortoises live in a semi-natural, 12-hectare enclosure. They are here to produce offspring. The residents had been captured in the area “Los Galapagos” in the north of the island and were brought to the reserve in 2002. Guests can observe the tortoises on a circular trail and also pay a visit to the nursery with the two- to six-year-old turtles along the way.

A circular path leads the visitor through the wide enclosure. Although it may seem dry and desolate, it is the ideal habitat for giant tortoises. The soil, vegetation and amount of shade are perfect for these reptiles, providing them with everything they need to live and breed. There are two watering holes close to the trail. This is where many tortoises usually linger and can be easily observed.

Giant Tortoise Galapagos
At up to ten meters in length, males are larger than females and have a towering dorsal fin up to two meters in size.

Giant Tortoises on the Galapagos

The San Cristóbal giant tortoise (Chelonoidis chathamensis) is one of 12 tortoise species in Galapagos. It is found only on San Cristóbal Island. It is estimated there were about 24,000 adult Chelonoidis chathamensis living on San Cristóbal before the arrival of humans. However, by the early 1970s, the population was estimated at only 500-700 individuals. In November 2016, a repeated study revealed a total population of about 6,700 individuals. Of these, about 44% are adults (2,950) and 56% are juveniles and hatchlings (3,750). These live mostly in the 26 square kilometer wide area “Los Galapagos” in the north of the island.

All tortoise species in Galapagos are believed to be descended from common ancestors that arrived on the islands a long time ago. However, due to geographic isolation, the animals on the different islands have evolved independently and adapted to the conditions prevailing on each island. There used to be another three species of tortoises on the Galapagos. But these are now extinct. Most recently, the subspecies C. abingdonii disappeared from our planet. The last one of this species was Lonesome George. He died at an age of about 100 years on June 24, 2012. An intensive search for a reproductive partner on his native island of Pinta was unfortunately unsuccessful. In contrast, however, in 2017 the re-breeding of the Floreana turtle, thought to have been extinct for 150 years, was successful. Representatives of its species were discovered on Isla Isabela in 2015. How the animals came from Floreana to Isabela? It is suspected that too heavily loaded whalers dumped the animals that had been loaded as provisions in the port of Isabela.

Giant Tortoise Galapagos
In case of danger the giant tortoises can retract their head.
Giant Tortoise on San Cristóbal Galapagos
I am bigger! Giant Tortoise in the Galapaguera Cerro Colorado

Threats to the Giant Tortoises of Galapagos

Tortoises on the Galapagos Islands were subject to extensive overexploitation for food by sailors and settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, the main factors that threaten the giant tortoises are introduced animals and the destruction of their habitat. Pigs, goats, cats and rats are threats, as they often prey on the nests and hatchlings. Introduced plants displace the native plants, and in this way they destroy the food basis of the tortoises. The Galapagos National Park therefore focuses not only on breeding programs but also on the control of introduced animals and the preservation of the natural habitat of the tortoises. In addition, education and training programs are offered to the local community.

However, poaching and the illegal wildlife trade are also causing population declines. As recently as March 2021, 185 small tortoises, were found in a suitcase at the airport on Baltra Island. In 2018, 123 juvenile tortoises were stolen from the giant tortoise breeding center on Isabela Island. Also on Isabela, in early 2022, Galápagos National Park rangers discovered the remains of 15 slaughtered giant tortoises. The demand for turtle meat and products apparently still exists, unfortunately.

Introduced animals are a major threat to turtles and are controlled. Here is a warning sign from Isla Isabela.

Breeding of Giant Tortoises - a Success Story

The tortoises mate once a year and the females lay between 4 and 17 eggs. Once the eggs are collected from the nests, they are transferred to the incubater. In order not to damage the embryos, the eggs are laid in the same position as they were previously in the nest. Under precisely defined humidity and temperature, the eggs are incubated here for 90 to 120 days. In this process, the temperature regulates which sex the young turtles will have: Males hatch after incubation at 24 °C and females at 28 °C.

In nature, the eggs are laid in a sand pit. This is sealed by the female with a lid made of sand, urine and excrement. When the tortoises hatch, they must first dig their way to freedom with great effort. This can take between 20 and 40 days. During this time, the young tortoises will not drink or eat. To survive, they have the yolk sac from the egg still attached to their bellies. To simulate these circumstances during artificial incubation, the newly hatched tortoises spend their first month in a dark box. They are then moved to the enclosures where they grow up protected from predators. As soon as they are big enough, they move to a larger enclosure. Eventually, at the age of five to six years, they are reintroduced to their natural habitat in the north of the island. At the age of about 20 years the turtles become sexually mature. Only after 100 years are they finally fully grown.

In these boxes, the young tortoises grow up protected from predators.
baby Giant Tortoises Galapagos
The older turtles are moved to larger enclosures.
Giant Tortoise Galapagos
The adult parents live in a 12-hectar enclosure. Particularly popular here are the waterholes.

Facts about Chelonoidis chathamensis

Other names: Chatham Island giant tortoise or the San Cristóbal giant tortoise
Size: curved shell length up to 130 centimeters
Weight: up to 250 kilograms
Age: 100-150 years
Habitat Type: Forest, shrubland
Population: about 6,700 animals (44% adults (2,950) and 56% juveniles and hatchlings (3,750))
Protection: San Cristóbal tortoises are protected under Ecuadorian national law. They are included in Appendix I of CITES since 1975, prohibiting all forms of commercial international trade. Much of San Cristóbal (87%), including the majority of the area of tortoise occurrence, is protected as part of the Galápagos National Park.

How to get to the Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado?

The Galapaguera is located in the southeast of San Cristóbal, about 22.4 km from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (about 30 minutes). A cab costs about 35 euros.

Giant Tortoise on San Cristóbal (Chelonoidis chathamensis)
Giant Tortoise on San Cristóbal (Chelonoidis chathamensis)

Caccone, A., Cayot, L.J., Gibbs, J.P. & Tapia, W. 2017. Chelonoidis chathamensis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T9019A82688009. Accessed on 24 January 2022.

Have you ever seen these fantastic animals? Where was it? Do you have any questions or comments about my article? Then I would be happy if you write me a comment. I would also be very happy if you share my article with your friends. 

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2 thoughts on “The Giants of Galapagos – Visit to the Tortoises of San Christóbal”

  1. Hey Mareike, I love your photos. Great perspective and a really nice and well written article. Thank you very much for your information. We are heading to Galapagos soon and appreciate all your great work!
    Kind regards, Nina

    1. Thank you so much, Nina. I really appreciate your feedback. Have a good time on the islands! I hope you’ll see many tortoises. Best wishes, Mareike

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