Lonesome George, I Will Miss You

Candice Gaukel Andrews June 26, 2012 35

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.

A singular life

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

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

35 Comments »

  1. Joanne Orion Miller July 20, 2012 at 12:30 pm - Reply

    Thank you for that moving article, Candice. It’s painful to see what human greed and overpopulation has done to our animal brethren–and it continues to happen. I’ll turn a glass over for George tonight, though there’s not enough glasses to cover the extent of extinction on the planet. What can we do? One way is to contribute to programs that encourage responsible planned parenthood (human encroachment is a common cause of extinction–there are just too many of us).

  2. Rebecca July 15, 2012 at 8:48 am - Reply

    What an effective way you have of bringing the crisis of extinction to the hearts of the public. I had never heard of George and will share this sad story with others.

  3. Sarah T. July 13, 2012 at 1:57 pm - Reply

    Thanks for sharing this story. I hadn’t heard of George until now. It’s an important reminder to us all about the importance of conservation and protection.

  4. pam l July 7, 2012 at 3:30 pm - Reply

    my heart aches for george and for all of us left behind

  5. zahid farooq July 7, 2012 at 1:57 am - Reply

    very sad and bad news

  6. Maria July 5, 2012 at 4:34 pm - Reply

    I’m genuinely sad, the story is painfully common. I suffer thinking of those turtles piled on each other in the hulls of those ships.

  7. Ellen July 4, 2012 at 4:43 pm - Reply

    A sad day for us……we have lost a legend;-(

  8. Consuelo A. July 3, 2012 at 9:06 am - Reply

    That is truly sad… I saw George when I was 13 years old. I was really hoping to go back and have the chance so see him again. At least the message is that with care, a species IS able to live long.

  9. Kay H. July 3, 2012 at 8:21 am - Reply

    This is so sad, goodbye George. The last of your beautiful species!

  10. Sandi July 2, 2012 at 7:25 am - Reply

    Last of your kind… 🙁

  11. Marlon June 30, 2012 at 3:26 am - Reply

    sad to hear

  12. Vanessa June 30, 2012 at 3:24 am - Reply

    I always felt so sad, when he was alive, that he was the last of his kind and lived without peers and now I feel so much worse. This is why we have to try to stop extinctions.

  13. Carlos P. June 29, 2012 at 5:46 am - Reply

    It is really such a pity that he has gone forever …RIP

  14. Salid June 29, 2012 at 5:44 am - Reply

    Rest in peace, Lonesome George. We will really miss you, old buddy 🙁

  15. Sugandha Iyer June 29, 2012 at 5:43 am - Reply

    Very sad,the animal lovers will miss him so do I.

  16. Valerie June 28, 2012 at 5:15 pm - Reply

    So sad Lonesome George passes RIP George. I hope you had a long Happy Life.

  17. Sharon June 28, 2012 at 1:31 pm - Reply

    Lovely post, Candice. I was on Santa Cruz island last December, and visited the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) in Puerto Ayora. Alas, we did not see George, but heard all about him, and donated to the Station as well.

    We certainly walked among other giants, and enjoyed their behaviors. Both those with and without “spouses”. It breaks my heart that George’s kind were all gone, and yet the will to survive that he demonstrated all those years alone on Pinta and after at the Station, should serve as an inspiration to us all.

    Furthermore, we should all contribute to endangered species. If you have not been to the Gallapagos, it is an eye-opening education on a multitude of levels.

  18. christine June 28, 2012 at 7:22 am - Reply

    Funny how the death of this venerable creature inspires so much sadness to all of us. I feel like orphan, and I didn’t have the chance to meet him. And now, I will never get.

  19. William Judson June 28, 2012 at 5:57 am - Reply

    I really liked the piece, Candice. R.I.P. George.

  20. Carlyn June 27, 2012 at 4:42 pm - Reply

    Meeting George was also one of the highlights of our Galapagos trip. Some of the magic goes out of the world whenever an icon is lost. At least this time it wasn’t due to human error, greed or evil intent.

  21. Reisa Mary Stone: Animal Communicator June 27, 2012 at 4:17 pm - Reply

    Godspeed, George.

  22. Candi H. June 27, 2012 at 9:12 am - Reply

    Sad news.

  23. Jacqueline June 27, 2012 at 9:11 am - Reply

    A real tear-jerker. Thanks for expressing what George meant to you.

  24. LIPSTICK CITY GUIDES NEW YORK June 27, 2012 at 6:42 am - Reply

    Hi Candice, I too, was lucky enough to “meet” George and his friends, many years ago on a trip to the Galapagos and it was a lifetime highlight. The Galapagos Islands in general are a must for anyone wanting to see nature and wildlife in it’s true state. To walk amongst nesting birds who have no fear of man. To swim with penguins in Pacific waters. These were magical moments. Protected since 1959, this is one of those rare places on earth where the wildlife really is “wild”, yet tame, because no threat from man exists. Rest easy, George….

  25. Nancy June 27, 2012 at 6:40 am - Reply

    Lovely post, Candace. I, too, miss Lonesome George, having “met” him on my trip to the Galapagos last summer.

  26. Vir June 27, 2012 at 6:39 am - Reply

    RIP dude 🙂

  27. white pine June 26, 2012 at 7:49 pm - Reply

    You have written a beautiful eulogy. I will mourn his passing. I’m feeling so sad, too, about all the others in our beautiful world who are about to leave us. Each extinction makes the world a lesser place.

  28. S. G. June 26, 2012 at 12:31 pm - Reply

    So sad

  29. Mark June 26, 2012 at 11:05 am - Reply

    Poor old guy. May he rest in peace.

  30. Art Hardy June 26, 2012 at 8:30 am - Reply

    I’m feeling kind of lonesome myself after reading this post.

  31. Judy June 26, 2012 at 8:08 am - Reply

    Great send-off for George.

    I was fortunate to see him when a female was doing her best to be enticing. His neck stretched out, his mouth opened and the sound that emerged said so clearly “Get out of my pen; I’m not into you at ALL!” that I almost laughed out loud as a snapped off a photo.

    Realizing in that moment he really would be the last of his specie made me want to cry, too.

    You can share that moment with me. I posted the photo to facebook yesterday – facebook.com/judy.wells1.

  32. Sara L. June 26, 2012 at 8:07 am - Reply

    I too will miss Lonesome George – our trip to the Galapagos Islands was by far one of our most memorable trips. We had an opportunity to meet Lonesome George and one of the females they were trying to get him to mate with at the time. I hope that my donations to the Conservatory helped him and the other tortoises and I will always remember him as his stuffed replica sits in my kitchen guarding all my keys!!

  33. Joanne June 26, 2012 at 5:47 am - Reply

    horribly sad

  34. Annemieke Roell June 26, 2012 at 5:08 am - Reply

    I met George many years ago and I am sad to hear of his demise ………..

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