For anyone embarking on a Galapagos cruise, one of the most anticipated wildlife encounters is with the island's iconic reptiles, the Giant Tortoise. While once the species lived on every continent, today the archipelago is one of only two remaining places in the world it can be seen. |
Like much of the unique wildlife of the archipelago, scientists believe that the tortoises of the Galapagos Islands arrived several million years ago by drifting over from the South American coastlines. After colonising on the islands of San Cristobal and Espanola, the species spread to other islands and established 15 separate populations and subspecies.
Over the centuries, several of these subspecies became extinct, primarily due to human activity in the 1800 and 1900s when their use by pirates and sailors as food and oil was rife. By the end of the nineteenth century it appeared that the Pinta Island Tortoise was among the subspecies that had disappeared forever. Then, in 1971, a lone male was discovered. He was to become known by conservationists and locals as Lonesome George.
The Last of His Kind
As the last of the Pinta Island subspecies (Geochelone abingdoni), George was a highly significant evolutionary discovery and conservationists took him into captivity at the Charles Darwin Research Station, on Santa Cruz Island, with a view to resurrecting his lineage. They hoped to breed him with a female of very similar genetic makeup and reproduce although not a purebred offspring, at least a very close hybrid.
Over 30 years, four different females shared his home but he showed very little interest in them – hence the name given to him by his keepers. Although George did eventually mate with two females (in 2008 and 2009) all of the eggs produced were unviable and failed to hatch – despite being moved to an incubator.
As the "rarest creature on Earth", in the last years of his life George became an iconic symbol of conservation efforts, not just in the Galapagos Islands but also throughout the world.
Death of a Conservation Icon
In 2012, the Geochelone abingdoni subspecies was the fourth to become extinct, with the death of Lonesome George at an estimated 100 years of age. But while the loss is significant, the publicity surrounding the much-loved Giant Tortoise has drawn attention to the effect of human actions upon the future of our irreplaceable wildlife species. He inspired the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative, and the work of the Galapagos conservationists has been invaluable in the education of other captive breeding programmes around the world.
Lonesome George Immortalised
After his death, George was transferred to the American Museum of Natural History to undergo what turned into a marathon four-year process of taxidermy, to preserve him as the important zoological specimen he is. It was no ordinary task, however, and yielded no ordinary outcome. The craftsmanship and artistry of renowned wildlife preserver George Dante resulted in one of the most extraordinary specimens ever achieved. The attention to detail was unparalleled and, at one stage, soil from Pinta Island was imported to ensure the authenticity of the recreation of the dusty colour of the shell.
Visit George on a Galapagos Cruise
Lonesome George returned to the archipelago to be placed on display and has become an enduring and much-loved symbol for conservation. For wildlife lovers visiting the islands on a Galapagos cruise, it's become somewhat of a rite of passage to pay respects to George in his permanent, state-of-the-art exhibit at the Charles Darwin Research Station. It's fitting that his final resting place overlooks the site where so many of the gentle Giant Tortoises of Santa Cruz Island spend their days.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in the unique wildlife of the Galapagos Islands. Marissa chooses the expert-led Galapagos cruise itineraries organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in one of the most spectacular regions on Earth.
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