Why did it take 300 years to give the Giant Tortoise a scientific name? Despite being discovered in 1535, they were not properly catalogued until the early 19th century because most samples never made it back home.
The story begins with the need for lighting. Before the advent of kerosene and vegetable oils, industrial societies relied on whale oil for lamps, and making soap or margarine. The oil was gathered by boiling the harvested blubber. The process was generally carried out on land for the chance of retrieving beached whales. On fishing trips of longer durations, the boiling happened aboard the ships so that waste carcasses could be thrown out to make room for proceeding catches. Meanwhile, Charles Darwin was offered a seat on the expedition of the Beagle and to accompany Captain Robert FitzRoy as a naturalist. His findings and personal notes are what influenced his life’s work, The Origin of Species.
Darwin writes, “The breastplate roasted with the flesh on it, is very good; and the young tortoises make excellent soup.” Early navigators discovered that they had a property which was most unfortunate for them to have; they were simply delicious. Descriptions of tortoises were closer to restaurant reviews than natural history. People compared them to chicken, beef, mutton, and butter and how much better they are than all those things. The 17th century British naturalist, William Dampier, wrote that "They are so extraordinarily large and fat, and so sweet, that no pullet eats more pleasantly," while Captain James Colnett of the British Navy wrote of "the land tortoise which in whatever way it was dressed, was considered by all of us as the most delicious food we had ever tasted.” US Navy captain David Porter declared that, "after once tasting the Galapagos tortoises, every other animal food fell off greatly in our estimation ... The meat of this animal is the easiest of digestion, and a quantity of it, exceeding that of any other food, can be eaten without experiencing the slightest of inconvenience." Ultimately, expeditions in search for whale oil required stores of food that the Giant Tortoise involuntarily provided; we had eaten them to the verge of extinction.
Darwin scribbles in his journal, “the old males are the largest, the females rarely growing to so great a size” and that “of the fourteen tons of tortoises” taken aboard his ship at one time in 1812, “only three were males.” The female population was specifically decimated because of the tortoises’ practice of laying eggs in the hinterlands, in sight of the ship’s view. Their average size also made it convenient for travel aboard the ships. Between 1784 and 1860, with the aid of logs kept by navigators, it is estimated that whalers took more than 100,000 tortoises from the islands. By 1960, the population of one species of Giant Tortoises, the Chelonoidis Nigra, dropped to 15. There are currently 12 surviving species, all of which are endangered. Goats further contributed to the extirpation of the species. The whalers brought them as sources of food but they were able to proliferate on the islands and their appetite annihilated the habitats of tortoises. Ironically, by the 1970s, the Galapagos National Park Service killed all the goats on the islands.
Compared to the rapacious harvesting of the animal, its initiatives for conservation came much too late and remain extremely fragile. Considering the zeal of human intervention involved in exterminating the tortoise populations, strategies for protecting the species should not be a hands-off approach. It is reported that reproduction of the species is now stable and that risk of extinction is low. However, declined survival rates, growth rates, and bodily conditions suggest resources for a continued, healthy population are increasingly limited. The matter is no longer of numbers but of the tortoises’ environment or milieu. Conservation biologist James Gibbs concludes that “ecosystem-level criteria for success of species reintroduction efforts take much longer to achieve than population-level criteria; moreover, reinstatement of endangered species as fully functioning ecosystem engineers may often require large-scale habitat restoration efforts in concert with population restoration.”
It can then be argued that current strategies for livestock may be beneficial for the economies and markets of various societies, as well as offering the tortoise regulated and protected conditions to thrive in. Learning from Baron Walter Rothschild, a renowned zoologist, the animals can be slowly introduced to manmade environments and be tamed to live in such settings. Taking cues from the Chicago Union Stock Yards, one can imagine how the delicious tortoise could become, even replace, the cow. Appropriation of mass consumption and commodification of meats could, perhaps, lead to the survival of a species and to the appreciation of them by another. As Cronan emphasizes in Nature’s Metropolis, modern anthropocentric history cannot be divorced from natural environmental history. Just as how the extraction, manipulation, and trade of natural resources propelled technological developments of the nineteenth century, a new economy will increase awareness and renew interests in the population of tortoises. Lonesome George [1910-2012], the last tortoise of its subspecies, could have been the beginnings of a long and complex supply chain that generated employment opportunities for butchers, packers, and transportation services. Furthermore, it can be a cornerstone to the collaboration of the otherwise disparate relationship of environmental activists and the market economy.
The specimen can weigh over 250kg or 550 lbs and live for over a century; the largest recorded specimen by Darwin was 400 kg or 880 lbs. Cattle weigh 640 kg, or 1,400 lbs and have a life expectancy of only 15 years on average. There can be a variety of tortoises from a primary origin species via cross breeding. For example, the smaller islands of the Galapagos tend to be drier with more cacti and shrubs and less grass. This allows the saddlebacked tortoises with longer necks to proliferate in such an environment; they are able to extend their necks and reach branches that are higher up. On the other hand, the larger islands tend to be grassier with more foliage. This allows domed tortoises to thrive, feeding on plant life that is closer to the ground. They are herbivores and typically feed on a diet of cacti, grasses, leaves, lichens, and berries. They consume about a fifth of their own body weight per day with the digestive efficiency roughly equal to that of horses. Retrieving most of their moisture from vegetation, they can survive without water for periods of longer than six months. They can endure up to a year without food and water. Cattle, on the other hand, require careful regulation of diets and cannot go as long as tortoises without food or water. All things considered, the tortoise has a longer expiration date and can be stored, with minimal resources, as reserve meat for emergency situations. Because they can be easily cross bred, chances for diseases to wipe out entire populations are also low- we are all too familiar with the ‘Mad Cow Disease’.
Appropriating, livestock consultant, Temple Grandin’s creations for animal welfare in slaughterhouses, the procedure and system for processing tortoise can be efficient and humane.
Darwin observed: "The inhabitants believe that these animals are absolutely deaf; certainly they do not overhear a person walking near behind them. I was always amused, when overtaking one of these great monsters as it was quietly pacing along, to see how suddenly, the instant I passed, it would draw in its head and legs, and uttering a deep hiss fall to the ground with a heavy sound, as if struck dead." Although they are not deaf, tortoises depend far more on vision and smell as stimuli than hearing. Like most reptiles, the tortoises are ectothermic and require basking in the sun for 1-2 hours after dawn, after which they forage for 8-9 hours per day. They have been observed to walk at speeds of 0.3 km/hr or 0.2 mph. Tortoises were found to occasionally bathe in mud, presumably for thermoregulatory reasons and protection from parasites. The size of cows makes handling dangerous and difficult for both handler and the animal. Sensitive to noise, sight, and smell the cow becomes easily stressed which affects the quality of the meat through inhumane practices. The turtle, on the other hand, with its calm temperament, is less easily stressed and its slow unassuming behaviors make it safe for handling.
Darwin notes: "The young tortoises, as soon as they are hatched, fall prey in great numbers to the buzzard." Cows typically give birth to one calf per year. The benefits of clutches of eggs are that they can be successfully hatched under controlled environments and injected with growth hormones to accelerate growth; new hormones in the market can increase the final size of the animal. The egg in itself is also a valuable produce, as chickens have demonstrated. Rather than having the eggs become birdfeed, they can be prematurely dug out of their nests for consumptions or incubation. Mating occurs throughout the year but is marked by peaks between February and June, during humid and rainy seasons. Egg-laying occurs at dry and sandy coastal sites. The digging of the nest can take several hours a day over many days to finish. They dig a cylindrical hole, 30 cm or 12” deep, where a female tortoise can lay up to 16 spherical eggs, 9.6 on average. They lay 1-4 clutches, or batches, per season. Lower temperatures produce more males whereas higher temperatures produce more females.
Darwin highlights, “the fluid was quite limpid, and had only a very slightly bitter taste. The inhabitants, however, always first drank the water in the pericardium, which is described as being the best.” They didn’t need to be fed water for months as they are able to store potable water in an internal bladder and in the pericardium, a sac located close to the heart. It would seem that almost every part of the tortoise is useful in some way, perhaps even its byproducts. Cattle byproducts are used in the production of medicine, insulation, shampoos, instrument strings, airplane lubricants, biodiesel, marshmallows, chewing-gum, and leather to name a few. Similarly, this could be an opportunity to make a product analogous to exotic beverages or the finest quality of leather.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) claims that there are 3,079 animal and 2,655 plant species endangered worldwide. The growing economy can further their investments in other endangered species to introduce exotic produce and capitalize on an increasing population surplus. The created artificial milieu will not be home exclusively for the tortoises. There will inherently be complimentary species that share such an environment. This will further the authenticity of the milieu which tortoises are accustomed to. Perhaps this modest proposal will give rise to an innovative version of Gilles Clément’s notion of the ‘Third Landscape,’ where human intervention is intense in the outset, but long-term maintenance is low. And then, perhaps, we could claim that there is no distinction between man and nature.