Galápagos giant tortoises being killed for meat, officials fear

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Authorities in Ecuador are investigating the deaths of four giant tortoises in the Galápagos, a South American archipelago that is a haven for all kinds of rare wildlife, amid fears they were killed by poachers for their meat.

The State Attorney General’s Office said Tuesday that a division specializing in crimes against the environment opened a preliminary investigation into the alleged “hunting and slaughter” of the tortoises, which occurred in the wetland complex of the Galápagos National Park.

The team includes experts in animal necropsy, and investigators will also interview park officials to help piece together what happened to the tortoises, Ecuadoran prosecutors said.

Tortoise meat was once considered a delicacy, and incidents over the past few years have raised concerns that Ecuador is becoming ensnared in the global wildlife trade.

Last September, park rangers found the remains of 15 giant tortoises on the Galápagos archipelago’s largest island, Isabela, amid signs they had been killed by hunters. In March of last year, 185 critically endangered tortoise hatchlings were found inside a suitcase during routine inspection at an airport in the Galápagos.

Giant tortoises are endangered, and killing them is illegal under Ecuadoran law, punishable by up to three years in prison.

The Galápagos Conservancy, a US nonprofit organization, condemned the latest killings, describing the poaching and eating of giant tortoises as an “environmental crime.”

Ecuador expands protections around Galapagos, creating ‘a new highway’ for sea life

Charles Darwin once described the Galapagos as “a little world within itself.” Many of the tortoises and other animals he saw there in 1835 — inspiring his ideas dele on evolution — are found nowhere else on Earth.

But over the years, invasive species, climate change, overfishing and the effects of human activity have dramatically altered the Galápagos ecosystems. Giant tortoises were almost wiped out there in the 18th and 19th centuries by whalers and other sailors, as well as by invasive species such as goats.

Ecuadoran President Guillermo Lasso in January expanded protections around the Galápagos, creating “a new highway” for sea life. The decree curbed fishing in more than 20,000 square miles of ocean to the northeast of the archipelago, where schools of bulbous whale sharks and trim scalloped hammerheads were previously vulnerable to being hauled up by fishers for their prized ends.

Galapagos tortoises can grow to more than five feet long and 500 pounds and live for more than 100 years. There are about a dozen species of Galapagos Island tortoise all of which are under threat, from vulnerable to critically endangered.

In June, scientists announced they had sequenced the entire genome of a rare Galápagos species with a huge, flared shell — first spotted by conservationists and explorers in 2019 — and found that it was of the same lineage as a tortoise believed to have been extinct for more than 100 years.

Giant tortoise believed extinct confirmed alive in Galapagos Islands

“This recent poaching incident is particularly egregious as the very few individuals of the subspecies Chelonoidis guntheri remain in the wild,” the Galapagos Conservancy said in a statement. “We must safeguard giant tortoises and the ecosystems they depend on.”

Dino Grandoni and Sammy Westfall contributed to this report.

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