Of all the animals in the Galapagos, the one most closely associated with them, indeed, the one that gives the islands their name, is the giant tortoise. To the early Spanish discoverers, the tortoise's shells reminded them of a particular type of riding saddle, the galapago and, accordingly, they applied this term to these giant reptiles. Hence, "las Islas de las Galapagos" literally means "Islands of the Giant Tortoises." Darwin was struck by the fact that each island has its own unique race of tortoises and this was a key observation in the development of his theory of evolution. Today 15 races are recognized and four are extinct. A fifth, from Pinta island, is survived by a single male, Lonesome George. The 11 living races can be divided into saddle-backed tortoises, whose shells arch high over their necks, and the domed tortoises, whose shells are low over the neck. Saddle-backed tortoises live in dry desert areas where most of their food is high. The arch allows them to stretch their necks up for browsing. The domed tortoises, on the other hand, live in the moist highlands where they graze or grass and low-growing shrubs.


Today, the Charles Darwin Research Program is engaged in a conservation and captive breeding program to try to preserve the remaining tortoises. In recent years, conflicts over fishing rights in the Galapagos have led some fishermen to register their protests by poaching and killing tortoises, and the tortoises are as endangered today as they have ever been. Lonesome George, the last of his race is the symbol of conservation in the Galapagos. He represents both the value of this World Heritage Site, and fragility of Darwin's laboratory of evolution