We mourn the passing of Lonesome George. For those who don’t know, Lonesome George was the last of his kind, a subspecies of giant tortoise endemic to the island of Pinta in the Galapagos. He had been the last of his kind for some 40 years, since he was discovered by a snail biologist on Pinta in the 1970s. Despite best efforts, no other members of his subspecies have ever been found; they had been wiped out by centuries of exploitation by passing pirates and whalers, who found giant tortoises a convenient, and easily hunted, source of meat and fat.
Lonesome George died on Sunday 24 June. He had lived out his days in the safety of the Charles Darwin Research Centre on the central Galapagos island of Santa Cruz, where he spent his time happily chewing on vegetation, and largely ignoring the females of similar subspecies that were put in the enclosure with him in an attempt to encourage him to pass on his genes.
Viewed by the earliest explorers as a hell on earth for its seemingly inhospitable volcanic terrain, the Galapagos Islands have in more recent times come to be seen as an earthly paradise for their unique and fascinating biodiversity. Cradle of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, and one of the least spoilt wildlife spots on Earth, the archipelago is not immune to the depredations of 21st century human existence. Over-fishing, introduction of invasive and destructive species, and even the pressures of eco-tourism, are all taking their toll. The islands are thousands of miles away, but the issues are close to home.
Despite his quiet, unremarkable existence, in his lifetime George became an icon, symbolic of the tension between resource exploitation and “progress” on one hand, and conservation on the other. This placid and unhurried beast captured our imagination and our affection, and was therefore able to speak, without words, for all those species less able to engage us at a personal level. It is not for an untimely death that we mourn him – he is thought to have been around 100 years old – but for the extinction of his kind, just a drop in the mighty wave of mass extinction that we are experiencing, and causing.
Sian Atkinson, Conservation Communications & Evidence Adviser