Can you imagine being the last of your species? Or how about meeting the last individual of another species, knowing that yours has sentenced them to extinction?
I first met Lonesome George on Santa Cruz Island in 1998 while authoring an eco-adventure travel guide to Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands and getting my first ecotourism company off the ground. I took to him immediately as he came out of his shell, stretching upward a ridiculously long neck while reaching for a bite to eat. I noticed a near grin on his face and a sparkle in the eye of the 85 year young Giant Galápagos Tortoise (think E.T.!). In fact, Lonesome George – the last of his species – came off as a very majestic creature in person. But perhaps more importantly it was what he represented to the world that made him less lonesome, at least to me.
After all, Charles Darwin rewrote the history of life on Earth after his visit to the Archipelago in 1835. In fact, it could be argued that Darwin’s visit to the Galápagos remains of the most famous few weeks in the history of science. Meanwhile, Lonesome George’s century-long life and the fact that his parents could have witnessed Darwin’s landing is a testament to the endurance of the species. And they would have been as gentle and unafraid of humans back then as the remaining tortoises are today.
Unfortunately, Galápagos tortoises were hunted mercilessly for meat and oil, beginning in the 17th Century by pirates, through the 19th Century by whaling ships. And sadly, Lonesome George’s death at 100 years old meant the last of the known purebred individuals of Chelonoidis abingdoni native to Pinta Island, marking the extinction of one of 10 surviving giant tortoise species from the Galápagos Archipelago.
Even though attempts were made to mate Lonesome George with his nearest tortoise subspecies, George never really took a shine to his attractive female counterparts. Perhaps he was just content in knowing that his time, his kind’s time had come, and that he was there to make an example of how precious all life is.
And that has been the lasting legacy of Lonesome George, at least for me – his story itself. As a result we have the world-renowned Charles Darwin Research Station and the scientific implications of the archipelago. We can still experience the ridiculously, fantastically brilliant and friendly wildlife that you can walk right up to. And ultimately the fact that a single tortoise, along with a little help from all of the other amazing creatures that still inhabit the Galápagos Islands, have spawned a global conservation movement, is a testament that will endure time.
It’s been a while since I’ve visited the Galápagos Islands, but I sometimes think about the fond memories and great wildlife (and human) experiences I had there. I still remember the day I heard in the news that Lonesome George had died feeling a sense of sadness and loss, more so than most people I hear about. Now you can find Lonesome George at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City. Designed by an expert team of taxidermists, the display depicts George at his most majestic; with neck outstretched and shell polished exactly as he was when we met.
We all move on – it’s the legacy we leave behind and the difference we’ve made that matters. And I for one, can name very few people in the world that have done more for the legacy of conserving our natural world as an implicit right in and of itself than one particular tortoise. I have since committed my professional career and myself to promoting a more sustainable future for all of earth’s inhabitants, and I for one would like to say “Thank you Lonesome George.”
This guest article was written by Good Nature contributor Peter Davis Krahenbuhl.