The Ecuadorian government is investigating the deaths of four Galápagos giant tortoises they suspect were hunted and eaten, according to the BBC. An environmental crimes unit is currently interviewing national park agents while postmortems on the reptiles are being conducted.
The animal carcasses were discovered on Isabela, the largest of the Gálapagos Islands. The region was famously visited by English naturalist Charles Darwin, whose evolutionary studies in the 1800s made the giant tortoises, and many other native species, world-renowned.
“As I was walking along I met two large tortoises, each of which must have weighed at least two hundred pounds: one was eating a piece of cactus, and as I approached, it stared at me and slowly stalked away; the other gave a deep hiss, and drew in its head,” wrote Darwin at the time.
While killing Galápagos giant tortoises has been illegal since 1933 and carries a jail sentence of up to three years, the population has nonetheless drastically dwindled. Only about 15,000 of the giant tortoises remain alive today — a pittance in contrast to the 200,000 in the 1800s.
Darwin himself, who transported 30 from the Galápagos to Polynesia aboard the HMS Beagle, saw crew members devour most of his cargo during their voyage. Tortoises were indeed once considered a delicacy, and appear to be hunted for their flesh to this day.
Park rangers discovered the remains of 15 Sierra Negra giant tortoises in September 2021 in the same park yielding the latest four carcasses, according to WION. Evidence at the time similarly suggested they were hunted for their meat, while those involved were never caught.
The World Wildlife Fund says giant tortoises are threatened by relatively newly introduced species including dogs and cats that prey on the young, and cattle force them to compete for vegetation. Poaching, however, continues to be a huge threat, as tortoise meat is sold on the black market.