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Tuesday, October 6, 1998 Published at 20:58 GMT 21:58 UK

World: Americas

Airlifting the giant tortoise

Puzzled but safe from the molten lava

A rescue operation has been launched to save the unique giant tortoises of the Galápagos Islands, which are under threat from volcanic eruption.

BBC's Damian Grammaticas: A threat to a "most precious habitat anywhere on Earth"
The Galápagos - about 1700km west of Ecuador in South America - are the most precious habitat anywhere on Earth. Many of the species of animals and plants that exist there can be found nowhere else.

Two weeks ago the volcano on the largest island, Isabela, begun spewing molten lava, producing a river about 3km long and 50m wide that passed closed to the area where the slow-moving giant tortoises make their homes, killing at least one.

'Operation Tortoise'

[ image: It may be uncomfortable, but at least its quick]
It may be uncomfortable, but at least its quick
Now, these slow moving creatures are getting a helping hand from their human neighbours, who are not at risk.

Under "Operation Tortoise", Ecuador's armed forces have begun moving those most at risk to safer parts of the island.

Eleven of the creatures - each weighing up to 100kg - have been airlifted to safety in the past few days.

A vanishing rare species

[ image: Blue Hill volcano unleashes its power on Isabele after being dormant for many years]
Blue Hill volcano unleashes its power on Isabele after being dormant for many years
The tortoises are one of the world's most endangered species. At the latest count four years ago there were 735 giant tortoises remaining.

They were found by Charles Darwin when he visited the Galápagos a century ago and developed his theory of evolution.

The authorities say that in the next few days they are planning to move another 14 tortoises away from danger.

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