03 July 2012
Posted in NatureWorks
On June 24 the world lost a superstar and an icon; at least within the wildlife conservation community. It was not a movie star, rock star or a reality TV personality… his name was George, "Lonesome George", and he was the last Pinta Island tortoise on Earth. Pinta Island is the northernmost island within the Galapagos Archipelago.
The islands are of course famous for Darwin, finches, strange iguanas, and of course, giant tortoises. The Galapagos Islands are situated about 620 miles off the coast of Ecuador and until fairly recent times were some of the most remote and desolate islands in the world. The islands are millions of years old and volcanic in origin and all native species arrived on the islands soon after their volcanic beginnings pierced the ocean surface. Animals and plants must have arrived by sea or air. The reptile fauna of the islands have ancestors on the mainland South American continent and traveled via either direct floating in ocean currents or on natural rafts of trees or vegetation. Reptiles are well adapted to surviving weeks at sea without access to fresh water or food. In fact, the only two non-marine mammal species native to the islands are two bat and two rice rat species.
The animal fauna evolved for millennia in the absence of humans and most species still show no natural fear of people. The islands were discovered on March 10, 1535 by a Dominican friar named Thomás de Berlanga. This discovery forever changed the islands. By the 1790's British and American whaling ships had reached the Galapagos. The giant tortoises proved to be a welcomed source of fresh meat. The tortoises proximity to the coast and their slow movements made them particularly easy to capture. Tortoises could be stored upside down on the ships for months at a time without food or water and tens of thousands were captured yearly.
The total population of tortoises is estimated to have been around 250,000 individuals pre-whalers and today the population hovers around 20,000.
Back to Lonesome George; the Pinta Island tortoise is a subspecies, Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni, one of 11 found throughout the Island chain. Decades of harvest took its toll and the Pinta Island tortoise was thought to be extinct by the mid-1800's. However, on December 1, 1971 a snail researcher, József Vágvölgyi, stumbled across George and took a photo of him. József was not aware of the significance of his find until March 1972. My good friend and mentor, Dr. Peter Pritchard was visiting József and his wife one evening when the conversation steered towards tortoise shell shape. Dr. Pritchard was explaining the two types of shapes found in the Galapagos, domed and saddleback, when József stated the tortoise he recently saw on Pinta did not seem saddlebacked. Peter could not believe what he just heard until József showed him the photo… proof that the Pinta Island tortoise still existed!
Around this same time a boat full of researchers and game wardens was heading for Pinta on a mission to cull exotic goats from the island and potentially to find the mysterious tortoise. Dr. Pritchard was also traveling to Pinta to scout out possible sea turtle nesting beaches. The hunters located the tortoise and carried him to the beach where he was tethered to a cactus for transport off the island the next day. Dr. Pritchard arrived in time to photograph and film George in his native land before helping to load him up for travel to the Charles Darwin Research Station on the Santa Cruz Island.
Lonesome George was estimated to be about 70 years of age… not particularly old for a Galapagos tortoise. He spent the next 40 years of his life as an icon of conservation and the living, breathing evidence of past evils perpetrated in the Islands. In the last decade or so of his life attempts were made to breed him with females of a closely related subspecies in order to keep the genetics of his race alive. During this time he was mostly disinterested in mating and only one clutch of 13 infertile eggs was ever produced. Sadly, at 8:00 a.m. on June 24, 2012, Lonesome George was found dead by his long-time keeper of 40 years, Fausto Llerena. His death was by natural causes at the age of approximately 100.
“Whatever happens to this single animal, let him always remind us that the fate of all living things on Earth is in human hands.”
What you probably do not know is that I am a turtle biologist by trade. I began my career path at the age of 10 when I caught my first snake. It wasn’t until the age of 15 that I switched my passion to turtles. I was visiting a reptile dealer in South Florida and upon being shown a large specimen of the mata mata turtle I was hooked. I am now 40 years old and there is not a day goes by that turtles and tortoises are not part of my life. I did not hear about Lonesome George’s death until the evening of the June 25 when I arrived home from work and settled in to catching up with emails. I opened up a reptile news forum and saw the headline…”Galapagos tortoise Lonesome George dies”. My jaw hit the floor and I let out a deflated and drawn out ”ohhh nooo”. My wife worriedly asked what was wrong and I tried telling her with this depressing wave of emotion flowing through me. I cried for a scaly, hard-shelled, cold-blooded reptile; and one I had never even seen in life. It will sound silly to some, a grown man crying over a tortoise, but I can assure you that hundreds of other turtle men and women were doing the same thing at the same time. The news quickly blew up in the conservation community and stories and tributes abounded in forums, emails and on Facebook.
This was an animal that provided inspiration for my efforts to study turtles. At one point in the 1990's I contemplated employment in the Galapagos. I was fortunate enough to work with Dr. Pritchard at his Chelonian Research Institute in Oviedo, Florida. For three years I was surrounded by photos, videos, books and most importantly, stories with Lonesome George as the subject. Dr. Pritchard’s 8mm film of George’s removal from Pinta was even featured in a documentary by the BBC in 2009 entitled, Lonesome George and the Battle for the Galapagos. Dr. Pritchard also led an expedition in October 2003 to survey the Island of Pinta for any remaining tortoises. This survey resulted in the discovery of bones of 16 individual tortoises; some which perhaps alive on the island after Lonesome George was removed. Interestingly all but one was male (one set of bones was from an immature, possibly female specimen). These survey results and discussion on the decline and extinction of the Pinta Island tortoise can be found in the publication The Pinta tortoise: Globalization and the Extinction of Island Species.
Globally, turtle and tortoise species are the most endangered vertebrate group. Roughly 65% of the approximate 300 species are classified as either threatened or endangered by the IUCN. I am grateful to have experienced this tortoise through Peter's photos, videos and stories. Unfortunately, I now have to remove the thought of meeting this tortoise from my life list and the Earth must remove another species from its lands. The world has lost an icon of imperiled species and extinction has taken its toll. My hope is that his death will provide as much inspiration for species conservation as his life did.
Tim Walsh, Manager of NatureWorks
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