Today I found out from Lee at Worm Salad that Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island Tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abigdoni) died this morning. George was found on Pinta Island in the Galápagos of Ecuador in 1972, after the subspecies was believed to be extinct, and was probably between 100 and 120 years old.
George had been the focus of a lot of breeding attempts over the years, but none were successful, and even if they had been, they would have produced hybrid tortoises, not more Pinta Island Tortoises. But George had become something of an icon of vanishing species, a tragic survivor. Every day species die out, many small and uncharismatic, many unknown to us, and many because of our actions–George’s kindred, the Pinta Island Tortoises, died out because introduced feral goats (still a major problem in the Galápagos) destroyed the native foliage.
I visited the Galápagos Islands in 2009 with my mother and saw Lonesome George at the Charles Darwin Research Station. The park has an active breeding program for giant tortoises, and a successful one (George aside), judging by the number of baby tortoises we saw. George really did look lonesome, and our naturalist guide from Galapagos Travel, who had worked with him before, told us he could be rather mean to the other tortoises in his enclosure.
I’m sad that he’s gone, and that his subspecies is gone, but if tortoises can be happy, I’m not entirely sure he was a happy tortoise. He was a pretty old tortoise, and it looks like he died of natural causes, although we won’t know for sure until after the park performs an autopsy.
And I hope that we can avoid having many more Lonesome Georges in the future–that his memory will continue to serve as the powerful icon for conservation that he was in life.
So long, George. We’ll miss you.