Because giant tortoises could remain alive in a ship’s hold for up to a year with little food, pirates saw them as a valuable source of fresh meat. ©John T. Andrews

Lonesome George died this past Sunday morning. His caretaker, Fausto Llerena, found the giant tortoise’s remains stretched out in his corral, facing his watering hole, at the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos Islands.

I didn’t know George personally, but I grew up knowing about him. And, recently, I got one of those celebrity-thrills-of-a-lifetime when I caught a fleeting glimpse of his backside, in person.

Lonesome George was the last of the Galapagos giant tortoise subspecies (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni) from Pinta Island. He was discovered there in 1972 at a time when tortoises of his type were already believed to be extinct. Since then, he had lived in captivity at the CDRS—for his own safety and for the hoped-for survival of his species.

Unfortunately, that hope died with George.

I had an opportunity to visit the Galapagos in January of this year ©John T. Andrews

A singular life

I first heard about George during my college years, when his discovery made news headlines. He was my first introduction—an awakening, really—to the challenges facing threatened species around the world and to the grave misdeeds we humans have perpetrated against our animal brethren.

In the 1800s, Pinta Island, located in the north of the Galapagos archipelago, was a good home to thousands of giant tortoises. That fact, however, also made Pinta a popular stop for pirates and whalers.

Because the giant tortoises could remain alive in a ship’s hold for up to a year with little food or other necessities, seafaring folk saw the tortoises as a valuable source of fresh meat. The sailors would carry off as many of the reptiles as their ships could hold. First, they collected the female tortoises since their smaller size made them easier to handle and store. And because the females would go to the beach to lay eggs, the raiders didn’t have to search very far to find them. When the female population began to become scarce, the males were gathered up. The tortoise population on Pinta visibly diminished.

The only native natural predator of the Galapagos tortoise is the Galapagos hawk, which preys on eggs and newly hatched tortoises.

By the time researchers from the California Academy of Sciences visited Pinta in 1906, they discovered the tortoise population had dwindled to a mere three male tortoises. The scientists collected them, believing that this was the end to native tortoises on Pinta.

Then, in the 1950s, fishermen working the nearby waters also decided that Pinta would make a good stop to restock meat supplies while at sea. Since tortoises were no longer available, they released goats, which quickly multiplied and devoured the little vegetation that existed.

In 1971, the Galapagos National Park Service began an eradication program to get rid of the feral goats on Pinta. To the surprise of everyone, one remaining Pinta tortoise was found still living on the island. The last of his subspecies, he was called “Lonesome George,” a nickname used by American comedian George Gobel, the star of The George Gobel Show, a television series that ran in the United States from 1954 to 1960.

The Galapagos Islands are home to about half of all breeding pairs of blue-footed boobies.

The park service relocated George to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island. Efforts were made to encourage George to breed with female giant tortoises from Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island, found to be the closest morphologically to the Pinta tortoises. Researchers even offered a $10,000 reward if someone could come up with a suitable mate for George. On July 21, 2008, it seemed there was good news. Tortoise eggs were discovered in the pen that George shared with his companions. The eggs were placed in incubators at the Captive Breeding Center at the CDRS. After 130 days, however, tests confirmed that the eggs were never fertilized.

Although George never became a father and now his kind has passed away with him, he played another important role during his lifetime. For millions of people and nature lovers around the world, he became the quintessential symbol of the crisis of extinction.

Being last—and lasting

I had an opportunity to visit the Galapagos in January of this year. For me, one of the highlights of the trip was getting the chance to see Lonesome George, the tortoise I’d been hearing about for four decades. Although he was mostly hidden under a shelter in his pen and had his south end facing out, it was still a thrill for me to be in this 100-year-old’s presence, even for a brief moment.

Rest in peace, George. ©John T. Andrews

Since 1972 when George was discovered—and since I’ve long left college—I’ve often written about climate change and the alarming rate of species extinction. And submerging myself in these issues, I’ve often wondered how it must have felt to see the last passenger pigeon to fly through the skies, the last Javan tiger to pad through the forest or the last imperial woodpecker to spiral a tree trunk and tap on the wood.

Today, I no longer wonder.

Today, I know exactly how it feels.

Rest in peace, George. I—and the world—will miss you.

Candy