Photographing the Gallotia lizards – Part 2: Gallotia bravoana

The access to the area with the remaining population of Gomera Giant Lizard (Gallotia bravoana) was relatively unrestricted although this species is listed as critically endangered. This place — Risco de la Mérica (La Mérica Rock) — is right behind Playa del Inglés — a popular beach of Valle Gran Rey. It has a very distinctive pyramidal shape and therefore is easy to find. It is also on any map of La Gomera with a scale of 1:40 000 or less, along with the breeding station of the conservation project “Centro de Recuperacion del Lagarto Gigante de la Gomera” (or “Lagartario”) which is right in front of the rock. The entire area north of Playa del Inglés is officially protected as a nature reserve. The access to it is open to everyone who obeys the usual rules for such conservation areas — “Do not litter”, “Do not disturb wildlife”, “Do not make fire”, etc. — which are also stated on an information board placed at the beach.

Risco de la Mérica - terra typica and the entire distribution area of Gomera Giant Lizard (Gallotia bravoana). The information board is telling about a conservation project supported by the EU. One of the aims of this project was building a fence in front of the habitat of the lizards. This fence collapsed after the project was finished, and the protection area was looking abandoned when I visited it.
Risco de la Mérica – terra typica and the entire distribution area of Gomera Giant Lizard (Gallotia bravoana). The information board is telling about a conservation project supported by the EU. One of the aims of this project was building a fence in front of the habitat of the lizards. This fence collapsed after the project was finished, and the protection area was looking abandoned when I visited it.

I stayed in a hotel nearby for 5 days and could reach the rock within a few minutes. I made 3 excursions to it attempting to find the lizards. The wall where the lizards live is looking west. In the morning this slope is cold because it is completely within a shadow of the rock. The sun starts coming out to this side of the rock at 10 a.m., and in this season at noon it is already burning with full power. There was no sense to come earlier than 10:00 a.m. or later than 11:00 a.m., i.e. there was only 1 hour for work — when, according to my estimation, the lizards might be basking and not hiding.

View at La Mérica rock (Risco de La Mérica) through a window of my hotel room — the terra typica of Gallotia bravoana and the stronghold of the last population of this species.
View at La Mérica rock (Risco de La Mérica) through a window of my hotel room — the terra typica of Gallotia bravoana and the stronghold of the last population of this species.

The rock is in reality larger than it appears when you are looking at it from the town. The base of it is completely covered by debris that you have to pass to reach the the stony wall and to start climbing to the levels where the lizards live. It is very difficult to walk on this field of smaller and larger stones, and I needed about an hour to cross it.

The wall is steep but not really vertical, i.e. anyone in good physical shape should be able to climb at least the lower half of it even without special equipment. The upper half is steeper but also not vertical. Most of it is free of vegetation. Some green plants persist only on ledges that are very easy to recognise even when you are standing at the bottom of the rock. Since adult gallotias of this species are strictly vegetarian these ledges can be the only places on the rock where they come to feed. Therefore it appeared logical to search there.

I reached the lowest of them carrying the backpack with photo equipment. Without this heavy load I could climb even higher. To be able to do get also the equipment on the rock one would need a ropes, nails and hooks. It should be also wise to wear body and head protection (helmet). I had nothing of that stuff. Therefore I stopped climbing when I arrived at the second such ledge and recognised that the slope was getting steeper. Leaving the backpack and climbing without it didn’t make much sense because I came to photograph the lizards. To continue without ropes and protection also appeared too dangerous. Therefore I searched the places with green that I had access to. After that I sat down on the highest ledge that I managed to reach and started waiting for the sun to shine at this place. It was 10:30 a.m., but the entire western side of the rock was in a deep shadow. One hour had to pass till the sunshine reached the place where I was sitting. It was quickly getting hot. I started searching again because it looked like the only time when the lizards, if there were any, should come out for feeding.

View from the habitat of G. bravoana at Punta de la Calera, Playa del Inglés and “Lagartario” - the breeding station. This photo was taken at 10:25 a.m. As you see, this side of the rock was still entirely in a deep shadow.
View from the habitat of G. bravoana at Punta de la Calera, Playa del Inglés and “Lagartario” – the breeding station. This photo was taken at 10:25 a.m. As you see, this side of the rock was still entirely in a deep shadow.

I searched very carefully all places with green vegetation that I could reach and was also using a binocular to look at the places that were higher. Unfortunately, I discovered neither lizards nor any other animals. The area appeared almost lifeless. Near noon the entire western side of Risco de la Mérica stood in bride sunshine and the stones rapidly got extremely hot. I could not believe that any lizards would stay on surface in these hours. It was also the time when lizards of the common species — G. caesaris — were disappearing, too. Even if G. bravoana don’t hibernate in this season, their daily period of activity should be limited to a couple of hours. Since such large lizards need much food and since the green plants are rare in their habitat, it appears to me unlikely that one or two hours would be enough time for finding and eating them. A lizard also needs some time for basking because its body has to reach certain temperature before the animal can feed.

Breeding station of a conservation and reintroduction project for Gomera Giant Lizard (Gallotia bravoana). Just behind it - the habitat of the only existing population of this species.
Breeding station of a conservation and reintroduction project for Gomera Giant Lizard (Gallotia bravoana). Just behind it – the habitat of the only existing population of this species.

I have no doubts that I was searching in the right place. The ropes that were hanging on the rock and that the researchers were using as climbing aid were another confirmation of this. Since I didn’t find even young individuals of this species who probably eat insects, I suppose that the lizards weren’t active at all in this hottest period of the year. Since the entire wild population of this species is estimated as 150-200 individuals and since this south-western wall of Risco de la Mérica is the entire distribution area of it, I can’t believe that the lizards were there and active but I’ve just overseen them. Therefore I have two recommendations for someone willing to find the giant lizards on La Gomera and for me if I should decide to go there again. First, the season should be colder — either spring or autumn, or even winter. Second, the search should be tried higher on the rock. Of course, it should make sense to contact an expert — a staff of the breeding station, or someone who conducted a research of this species.

To be continued in Part 3: Gallotia intermedia.

About Arthur Tiutenko
Nature Photographer and Illustrator

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