Demographic outcomes and ecosystem implications of giant tortoise reintroduction to Española Island, Galapagos

Restoration of extirpated species via captive breeding has typically relied on population viability as the primary criterion for evaluating success. This criterion is inadequate when species reintroduction is undertaken to restore ecological functions and interactions. Herein we report on the demographic and ecological outcomes of a five-decade-long population restoration program for a critically endangered species of “ecosystem engineer”: the endemic Española giant Galapagos tortoise (Chelonoidis hoodensis). Our analysis of complementary datasets on tortoise demography and movement, tortoise-plant interactions and Española Island’s vegetation history indicated that the repatriated tortoise population is secure from a strictly demographic perspective: about half of tortoises released on the island since 1975 were still alive in 2007, in situ reproduction is now significant, and future extinction risk is low with or without continued repatriation. Declining survival rates, somatic growth rates, and body condition of repatriates suggests, however, that resources for continued population growth are increasingly limited.

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