Thieves have stolen 123 baby giant tortoises from a breeding facility in the Galapagos Islands, where they are revered as a lumbering symbol of the region’s unique biodiversity and a reminder of how Charles Darwin conceived his theory of natural selection.
“They were all taken at once, 123 in all. It was a robbery,” Washington Paredes, a local politician, told the AFP news agency.
The islands are famous for their flora and fauna. Their 3,000 square miles are a protected habitat and home to dozens of species of animal found nowhere else on the planet.
That draws thousands of tourists every year but has also made the exotic species a target of wildlife criminals.
Mr Paredes complained that the facility where the theft occurred was poorly protected, with no security cameras or light sensors.
“The turtles are just there. If somebody wants to go in by night and steal, they can,” he said.
Ecuador’s environment minister said the tortoises were from the Chelonoidis vicina and Chelonoidis guntheri species. They were taken from a breeding centre on Isla Isabela.
Of all the species on the islands, the tortoises are among the most iconic.
When Darwin arrived aboard the HMS Beagle in 1835 he quickly learned there was something interesting about the giant reptiles.
“The inhabitants, as I have said, state that they can distinguish the tortoises from the different islands; and that they differ not only in size but in other characters,” he wrote in The Voyage of the Beagle.
He observed similar differentiation among species of birds and plants on each of several isolated islands.
“But it is the circumstance, that several of the islands possess their own species of the tortoise, mocking-thrush, finches, and numerous plants, these species having the same general habits, occupying analogous situations, and obviously filling the same place in the natural economy of this archipelago, that strikes me with wonder,” he wrote.
The findings he gathered eventually provide the evidence he needed to develop his new theory of evolution, explaining how new species could diverge from a common ancestor under the pressures of natural selection.
Total tortoise numbers have declined from more than 250,000 in the 16th century to about 3,000 in the 1970s, but have rebounded thanks to breeding programmes.
Even so the 15 species of giant tortoises seen by Darwin have been reduced to just 11 today, and some are close to extinction.
And earlier this year 26 adult turtles that had been smuggled to Peru were returned to the islands.