On June 24, 2012, Lonesome George, thought to be the last member of the chelonoidis nigra abingdoni subspecies of giant Galapagos tortoises, died. The outpouring of condolences in the world of social and traditional media, both locally and internationally, speaks to his legacy.
At the time of Lonesome George’s accidental discovery in 1972, Pinta Island giant tortoises were thought to have gone extinct. Ever since the seventeenth century, the Galapagos Islands were a destination for seamen of all sorts, where they could readily replenish their food stocks with tortoise meat. Afterwards, human beings found other uses for such slow moving prey and eventually the introduction of non-native species, such as goats, aided in the demise of many of the original inhabitants of the archipelago, including any tortoises that might have been related to George.
Since being taken into captivity, George inspired conservation and recovery efforts on the islands. In many places, including George’s native Pinta, eradication and control programs of invasive species have been implemented. Furthermore, the Galapagos National Park Service in its Tortoise Breeding and Rearing Center in Puerto Ayora took on the imperative of finding George a mate. Females from Wolf Island, which were judged to have the greatest physical resemblance to George, were brought to him in the hopes that he’d find at least one to his liking and reproduce. This yielded no results. More recently, George lived in the company of females from Española, who were a closer genetic match to him, but they too failed to reproduce with the last of the abingdoni.
I had the opportunity to meet George in 2004 during a visit to the Galapagos Islands. I figured him for a tragic figure in a chelonian seraglio. Today, though, I think his myth extends beyond loneliness. Giant tortoises exist in a sort of timelessness beyond my grasp of comprehension; estimated to have been over 100 years old (or in his midlife), George was witness to dramatic changes in the world around him. Human beings devastated his livelihood, killing both his environment and his kin, only to eventually do their absolute best to redeem their previous actions (and try and get him laid). George was a testament of hubris and, at the same time, a symbol of hope and goodwill.
Having survived at the mercy of a world not of his making as an icon, yet so utterly alone, George’s life told volumes about our own humanity. Fausto Llerena, the 71-year-old caretaker of George since 1983 and a member of the party that first encountered him on Pinta, was the one to discover his passing. As reported by El Comercio, on Sunday, Llerena was at first surprised that George didn’t greet him when arrived at the door of his corral, as he usually did. He spoke to him, saying “Wake up, I’m here!” It took him a few seconds to realize that George, stretched out on the rocks near his watering hole, was dead.
Lonesome George, you will be missed.