Central / South America

Celebrating the Life of Galapagos’ Lonesome George

Lonesome George, Galapagos islands
Photo credit: The Toronto Star

Sadly, the world has lost “Lonesome George.”

As the last living tortoise of the La Pinta species, Lonesome George became a living icon for conservation not only in the Galápagos but also internationally.

His image is the logo of the Galápagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Research Station, and he was possibly the world’s most famous reptile. He even has an entry as the rarest animal in the world in the Guinness Book of Records and a clothing line named after him. As author Henry Nicholls puts it:

“His story echoes the challenges of conservation worldwide; it is a story of Darwin, sexual dysfunction, adventure on the high seas, cloning, DNA fingerprinting and eco-tourism.”

When the Galápagos Islands became a National Park in 1959, conservation priorities were a top priority for the world’s scientific community. Giant tortoises, who gave their names to the remote archipelago, ranked high.

Hundreds of thousands of giant tortoises had been killed for food during the intense whaling years of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Conservation reached Galápagos too late for some. Floreana and Santa Fe Island Giant Tortoises had disappeared long ago, and the only known living tortoise from Fernandina Island was killed and preserved in the name of research and conservation during a United States expedition in 1907. The La Pinta Tortoise was, officially, another species wiped out.

Inadvertently, in December 1971 a young snail expert, Joseph Vagvolgyi, while squatting over the resident Bulimulus snails of La Pinta Island, was startled by moving shrubbery. He expected goats to have caused the commotion, but instead saw a male tortoise emerging from the foliage. His report went unnoticed until 1972, when a team of park wardens went to La Pinta Island to hunt introduced goats. On that visit an Ecuadorian field biologist, Manuel Cruz once again stumbled upon the last living tortoise of La Pinta. But this time he opted for rounding up wardens to help him lug the weighty (200-pound/90-kg), reptile to the beach. A few days later the tortoise was happily ensconced at the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island.

The relevance of this ‘animal rescue’ didn’t become evident until much later. In the 1970s, each island’s tortoise population was taxonomically seen as a subspecies – with only subtle differences among them. In subsequent years, scientists agreed that they were all different species. The only remaining living tortoise of La Pinta became a “living extinct species”, unless a female was found. From that day forth, the search began to find another female La Pinta tortoise. Officially, a monetary reward still exists for the person who delivers a female La Pinta tortoise to the National Park authorities.

In the meantime, one of the wardens from the 1972 team on la Pinta, Fausto Llerena, took over the care of the all resident tortoises at the Charles Darwin Research Station.  George, as he called him, became better known over the years as “Lonesome George”, possibly named after the American comedian George Gobel (1919-1991) who used this nickname in some of his shows.

Perhaps George’s death is not entirely the last page of a chapter. As for the old male from La Pinta, he will be remembered for generations to come, and his story will serve to shed light on our responsibility towards the other species on our planet.

If you would like to travel to the Galápagos Islands, you can arrange anyone of a myriad of tours with Metropolitan Touring, a company that has welcomed visitors since 1953.

Metropolitan Touring pioneered travel to the Galápagos Islands in the 1960s. Today, they have their own trio of expedition cruise vessels: the MV Santa Cruz and yachts Isabela II and La Pinta.  The company also owns the Finch Bay Eco Hotel on Santa Cruz Island.

 

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