25 June 2012

Lonesome George 19??-2012

I just learned that Lonesome George, last of the Pinta Island tortoises, has died, signaling the extinction* of that subspecies of Galapagos giant tortoise, Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni.

The coverage is still flooding in, but the best so far is this short but poignant interview with Director of the Galapagos National Park. It seems George's body was discovered by Fausto Llerena, "a park ranger who coincidentally rescued Lonesome George from Pinta island in 1972 and took care of him all these years." (h/t to @VaranusSalvator @cubismwonder for the link)

I'm just one of hundreds of thousands - perhaps millions - of visitors who "met" Lonesome Gorge (Solitario Jorge in Spanish) in his pen at the Charles Darwin Research Station on the island of Santa Cruz. In my case it was on October 22, 2010, while I was visiting Galapagos as part of the Wellcome Trust's Galapagos Live project.
A sign pointing the way to the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, Galapagos. Photo by the author.
Galapagos Live participants look into Lonesome George's pen at the Charles Darwin Research Station. Photo by the author.
Lonesome George's pen. There he is at center-right. The smaller tortoise at center-left is one of several females of another subspecies of tortoise with which he shared his pen (but alas, not his bed). Photo by the author.
Lonesome George. Photo by the author.
The Charles Darwin Research Station is the beating heart of science in Galapagos. It's run by the venerable Charles Darwin Foundation, an "international not-for-profit organization that provides scientific research and technical information and assistance to ensure the proper preservation of the Galapagos Islands." Among its many (many) scientific activities, the station runs a tortoise breeding program which rears young tortoises for reintroduction into the wild.
Galapagos giant tortoise eggs. Photo by the author.

But the fact that I saw Lonesome George with my own eyes isn't the reason I'm so upset to learn the news of his death. It's the fact that he was, and still is, a symbol.

He is the literal symbol of the Charles Darwin Foundation, the Galapagos Conservancy and the Galapagos Conservation Trust, among others. He even has his own clothing brand (great stuff, by the way, and a portion of proceeds supports conservation).
But more importantly he is a symbol of human efforts to slow a mass extinction of our own making. And I hope and believe he will continue on as that symbol beyond his gravelly grave.


To learn more about the formerly Lonesome George, I recommend Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon by Henry Nicholls.

*Russello et al. (2007) reported the discovery of a tortoise "of Pinta ancestry"on Isabela Island. Now we just need one more…


Rahul said...

so as well the evolution dies with him...no next species that would link with its kind to be another form of species..so long amigo..will see you there at the end of the rainbow..

Peter McGrath said...

Er, no Rahul. George's death while sad is evolution in action. He didn't get his scaly left over, didn't perpetuate his species and pass on his genes.

His kind wasn't helped by men (sailors, mostly it grieves me to say) using Galapagos tortoises as a source of meat putting the ppopulation under enormous pressure.

The fact of evolution is not at all dented by George's passing.