123 baby tortoises go missing

The Galapagos National Park Service noticed the absence of 123 baby tortoises from its tortoise breeding center in Villamil (Isabela island) last week.   The "Arnaldo Tupiza" tortoise breeding center was established 20 years ago with the objective of helping expand the wild tortoise population on Isabela island. 

It's not the first time that tortoise are stolen.   Last year, 17 baby Galapagos tortoises were discovered in Peru.  They were subsequently repatriated to Galapagos.   

There are three breeding centers in Galapagos, one at Villamil, one at Puerto Ayora (at the Charles Darwin Research Station) and another in San Cristobal close to the park offices there.   The Villamil breeding center is the most isolated, located approximately 1 mile (1.6 km) from town, surrounded by forest.  This makes the center more vulnerable to furtive activities.   

Newly hatched tortoises are about the size of an apricot and within two years can grow to the size of a tennis ball.  At four years, they are the size of a grapefruit - large enough to fend for themselves (e.g. mostly protect themselves from introduced rats) and are usually returned to their native habitats.  

This newborn is the size of an apricot...

In centuries past, tortoises were a highly sought food source.  Once it became known that this archipelago, located near rich whale hunting waters contained a plentiful supply of giant tortoises, it became the local "meat counter" for whaling ships, and any other ship passing through.  The tortoises were relatively easy to capture and transport to the ships - where they could survive for months before being butchered for dinner.   

Female tortoises were favoured for their smaller size - and ease of transport. Though the practice of eating tortoise largely died out 100 years ago, to this day, in some parts of the archipelago, there are still populations with a disproportionate number of males over females.

The Galapagos National Park Service has repatriated upwards of 2,500 tortoises over the years, with their most notable success being at Española island.  Here, in the 1970's, only a handful of tortoises remained after earlier depredations by humans, followed by the destruction of the habitat by introduced goats, and the predation by rats of all baby tortoises.  The Park, with technical help from the Charles Darwin Research Station was able to eradicate the goats and the rats, and to develop a way to breed the tortoises in captivity.  Española island is now more or less back to what is was like before humans came along.