Since yesterday morning when I first heard the news, I have been in mourning — as have thousands around the world.
Lonesome George (in Spanish, called Solitario Jorge) was found and captured on his native Pinta Island in 1972, whose landscape was devastated by goats introduced by humans. He was taken to the breeding grounds on Santa Cruz Islands, established to recuperate populations of giant tortoises whose populations were sorely diminished by centuries of hunting and destruction of habitat.
Solitario Jorge became a symbol of man’s devastation of the environment and the struggle to bring back species on the brink of extinction. For the next four decades, the Parque Nacional Galápagos (PNG), the Charles Darwin Research Station and scores of scientists combed Pinta Island and zoos around the globe looking for a pure-bred mate for George. Indeed, it appeared this Geochelone nigra abingdoni was alone in the world.
In 1993, the scientists decided to introduce Wolf Volcano (Isabela Island) females, a species closely related to the Pinta Island tortoise, into his corral, in hopes of preserving at least part of his species’ gene pool. The years rolled on with no results. Finally in 2008, the females laid eggs on several occasions. Unfortunately, the eggs proved to be infertile. Later these females were replaced with ones from Española, which species is even more closely related genetically. They remained with him until the end of his life.
Solitario Jorge was found dead in his corral on Sunday morning by Fausto Llerena, who took care of him for over 40 years. PNG scientists believe he died of a heart attack, but will perform an autopsy to determine the cause of death. His approximate age was 100 years. George’s body will be preserved for future generations of humans to learn about this species and environmental issues involving extinctions.
Today, the websites of international newspapers and NGOs are awash with the sad news, commemorations and calls for further conservation work to prevent the extinction of any more species. As Godfrey Merlen so eloquently expresses: “We need to take a certain risk to make every effort to stem the tide of extinction. Let his name live on, not as a sight to see but as a symbol of our determination.”
During the months I spent in Galápagos volunteering with an international NGO, I often stopped by Lonesome George’s corral to pay him a visit. Sitting in the shade of the patio, watching him lumber across the rocks beneath giant opuntia cactus, I would ponder how it must be to be the last of one’s species. Is he cognizant he is the only one left, that of all his kin that were kidnapped and killed, he is the only survivor?
Lonesome George was an Everyperson’s pet. In every corner of the planet, people knew him, speculated about his sexual prowess and pondered his species’ future. We all knew it was the end of the road for Geochelone nigra abingdoni. But we hoped against all odds a pure-blood female could be found, that he would have offspring, that the Pinta tortoise would not become extinct. Extinction is forever. And we have seen another Earth species pass to that terminal state — and we have witnessed it with our minds and in that space Lonesome George occupied in our hearts.
The Guardian honors Lonesome George’s life with a wonderful slideshow. His life was chronicled in Henry Nicholls’ Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon (Macmillan, 2006).
During July, Parque Nacional Galápagos will have a special photographic exhibit of Solitario Jorge in his corral. The PNG requests anyone who would like to submit photos, to send them to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about the Galápagos Islands and prepare for your trip there, pick up a copy of V!VA Travel Guides Galápagos, authored by official Galápagos resident Christopher Minster, PhD. It is available in e-book and print formats.