“Lonesome George, spread your angel wings and fly… Go and meet your tortoise lady on that island in the sky.”
The lonesome death of Lonesome George in 2012 affected a lot of people. You see, George was more than a mere tortoise. He was a living, breathing, slowly moving reminder to the world that extinction is final, tragic, and happening all around us.
As the last living Pinta Island tortoise, George was often referred to as “the rarest animal on Earth” and “the living face of extinction.” When he died of heart disease at the age of 102 (relatively young for a giant tortoise, they can live for 200 years), a magnificent lineage that had roamed the earth for untold millennia roamed no more. Such was George’s impact in life that his passing was international news.
To give you some background, in case you aren’t familiar with George’s story: different islands in the Galapagos have genetically distinct subspecies of giant tortoises. Long before the Galapagos became a world-renowned tourist destination and a national park, sailors, whalers and pirates stopped by to refresh their supplies of food and water. They absconded with tens of thousands of tortoises, which could be stowed in the hulls of ships for months, and left goats in their place (so they could eat them, and their offspring, at a later date). Goats eventually took over on many islands, destroying fragile tortoise habitat in the process.
On Pinta Island, tortoises completely disappeared, thanks to the goats’ voracious appetites. Or so scientists thought. In 1971, George was discovered and relocated to the island of Santa Cruz. Efforts to find a living Pinta Island female for George to mate with failed, in spite of a $10,000 reward. They tried to get George to breed with females of other subspecies as well, but no dice.
A taxidermy of George’s remains will soon be on display on Santa Cruz Island. If you have plans to visit the Galapagos, stop by and say hello.
Recently NPR released this funny and poignant musical tribute to George: