By Merlyn Thomas & Vanessa Buschschlüter
Ecuador has launched an investigation into the killing of four Galapagos giant tortoises, which prosecutors fear were hunted and eaten. Remains of the reptiles were found last week in the Galapagos National Park on Isabela, the largest island of the Galapagos archipelago.
Killing the endangered animals has been banned since 1933 but more than a dozen have been hunted in the last two years. Tortoise meat was once considered a delicacy, but those who hunt them now face up to three years in jail.
In September 2021, park rangers found the remains of 15 Sierra Negra giant tortoises on Isabela. Photos of their empty shells were widely shared on social media and caused outrage in Ecuador — of which the Galapagos Islands are part of — and beyond. Evidence gathered at the time suggested the 15 had been hunted for their meat.
The recent discoveries has reignited fears that the practice continues despite the total hunting ban and some Isabela residents are claiming that the Ecuadorian officials are not doing enough to combat it. Some, in fact, claim that park rangers have participated in the killing and selling of tortoise meat.
“The government knows about what is happening and has tried to keep it secret,” one resident told the El Universo newsapaper. “It would be very embarrasing for Ecuador if it became known that the government is not protecting the turtles,” said a man who asked to remain unnamed for fear of reprisal.
According to a second social media poster who also claimed to be an Isabela resident, one of the people involved in the killings is a former member of Ecuador’s National Assembly.
Galapagos National Park officials deny there has been a coverup of tortoise killings, saying it investigates every case it finds. Park law enforcement said it is “intensifying” its investigation of the 2021 killings, interviewing local residents and gathering information where shells were found.
“Our mission is to protect all the wildlife in the park and we take that mission very seriously,” the park said in a statement. “We are aware of the claims of the so-called ‘native tradition’ of consuming tortoise meat and we work hard to educate the people that this is against the law.”
On Monday, Ecuador’s Attorney General’s office announced via Twitter that it was joining the investigation at the request of park officials. “It is true there are claims that some park employees were involved in the killings and this will be one of the areas we will investigate,” said a prosecutor who recently arrived in the islands.
The tortoises killed last week and in 2021 belonged to the Chelonoidis guntheri species, which is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Experts will carry out post-mortems on the remains and a unit specialising in environmental crimes is collecting testimonies from national park agents as well as local residents.
There are currently about 15,000 of the giant tortoises in the world, compared to 200,000 in the 19th Century.