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Update on the Cerro Azul Eruption and Galápagos Tortoise Evacuation

10/06/98 The BBC reported today that a total of 11 Galápagos tortoises have been airlifted out of the path of lava flowing from the erupting Cerro Azul volcano and plans are afoot to move a further 14 tortoises. The total number of tortoises living on the Cerro Azul volcano is in the hundreds, but most of them are considered to be well away from danger.

According to an October 1 press release from Professor Howard Snell (Charles Darwin Research Station), tortoises in the vicinity include about 2,000 Geochelone nigra (elephantopus) vicina, a typical "dome" shaped giant tortoise, and a much smaller population of G. n. guntheri. Geochelone nigra guntheri has a noticeably flatter shell than other Galápagos tortoises and numbers fewer than 100 individuals - making it one of the most endangered of all Galápagos tortoises.

Professor Snell reported that the eruption began when a radial fissure erupted at midday on September 15 on the southeast slope of Cerro Azul. The first lava flow from the eruption extended east before turning southeast towards the coast. It ran through habitat of G. n. vicina, but fortunately avoided nesting zones and regions densely inhabited by tortoises. On 25 September, the lava flow branched near its source sending a new flow south into the "Cinco Cerros" region. That flow is heading directly into the area where the last G. n. guntheri remain and towards their only known nesting area. During a flight over the region on 29 September the flow was estimated to be 1.5 km from the nesting area, but its progress had slowed. As of 1 October one G. n. guntheri and six G. n. vicina have been found burned by lava or by fires associated with it.

In response to this new threat, the Galápagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Research Station have decided to incorporate 20 G. n. guntheri adults into their captive breeding and repatriation programs. Geochelone nigra vicina is considered relatively safe, being widely distributed on Cerro Azul, many more remain in the wild, and they are already well represented in the captive breeding and restoration program of the Galápagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Research Station. The most difficult part of placing 20 new tortoises into the program is finding and moving the up to 500 pound tortoises that may occur 7 km or more from the nearest coast. A helicopter is being used to move tortoises to the coast. There they can be loaded into boats and brought to the breeding center at Villamil which is located some 50 kilometers from Cinco Cerros.


Background and further information

Cerro Azul Eruption Threatens Galapagos Tortoises


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