Santa Cruz: Tortoise 12 (Lonesome George)
Credit: Ethan Ableman (ethansphotosarecool on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Lonesome George taken on October 29th, 2009A.Davey on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericA couple of days ago, I read an article by Tanya Lewis in Live Science and immediately I thought of Lonesome George. 

On June 24th, 2012, Lonesome George was found without vital signs in his corral by his main caretaker (since 1972), Fausto Llerena.

George was believed to be the last Pinta tortoise (Chelonoidis abingdoni) in the world. As such, he became a Galapagos conservation icon; his death reminded us of the role we've played in the loss of many species. 

George was - and still is - a driving force to protect all endangered creatures to ensure that they do not meet the same fate.

Up next, Sir David Attenborough visits George before his passing in a short snippet from the BBC Documentary Series titled Life in Cold Blood. This video was published on Jun 25th, 2012 by walrusvideodotcom under a Standard YouTube License.

Lonesome George's Story

by Sir David Attenborough in the BBC series "Life in Cold Blood"

Lonesome George Exhibit in NYC until January 4th, 2015

Following his death, expert taxidermists and museum scientists at the American Museum of Natural History carefully preserved George's body. They worked diligently to recreate his exact appearance and precise anatomical dimensions. I gather this work took the better part of two years to complete.

Lonesome George 2  December 10th, 2006Mike Weston on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericGeorge has been preserved to scale in a most dignified pose, with his neck outstretched - most likely the way he greeted Fausto Llerena, his primary caretaker.

Understandably, the team at  the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island was devastated by his death. Even though he was estimated to be between 80 and 100 years old, they thought he would live another 50 years.

Tortoises have been known to live for more than 150 years.

You might wonder how George died (I did). Apparently, it was considered to be of "natural" causes (heart failure). Although I sometimes wonder if being lonely might have played a part.

For decades, researchers tried to pair George with female Chelonoidis nigra becki tortoises (a similar subspecies from Isabela Island)Three unions resulted in eggs that were "inviable" - none hatched. Caretakers at the Charles Darwin Research Station noted that George didn't seem particularly interested in the females that were brought in to live with him.

He Lived With Two Female Tortoises but He Ignored Them

Lonesome George pen
Credit: Family O'Abé (oabe on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Some Good News

Española Galapagos tortoises by Christian Zeigler taken on September 29th, 2010Sebastian Keynes on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericBack to that article in Live Science. It appears that giant tortoises (Chelonoidis hoodensis) on Española Island, Galapagos, have been making a remarkable comeback.

By 1960, there were believed to be only 15 of these precious creatures. As such, the 3 males and 12 females were collected between 1963 and 1974 and kept in monitored captive environments.

Incredibly, over 1500 of their captive-raised offspring have been protected and then released on the island. Their natural food sources are cactus, plants, and grass. However, woody plants were predominant on the island at that time. As you heard in the video narrated by Sir David Attenborough, measures were taken to control goat populations as well.

By 1990, it appeared that these tortoises could be self-sustaining.

In the recently published October 28th, 2014 Plos One research article Demographic Outcomes and Ecosystem Implications of Giant Tortoise Reintroduction to Española Island, Galapagos the following conclusions and recommendations were drawn:

  • The tortoise re-introduction appears to have a net positive impact on the cactus population, itself of conservation concern due to destruction by goats now removed.
  • Tortoises are restricted to a small portion of Española Island and their habitat has likely degraded. Therefore, the carrying capacity estimated for tortoises on Española appears to be rather low (approximately 2100 tortoises for the 1250 ha “tortoise zone” or 1.7 tortoises per hectare). 
  • Instead of further repatriations, a wise approach to improve the long-term outlook for this species is to allow them to colonize more of the island.

The Española giant tortoises could benefit the ecosystem (and not simply be a viable population) if large-scale habitat restoration efforts are made in addition to further population restoration. 

About 1000 of the Española giant Galapagos tortoise (Chelonoidis hoodensis) are living and breeding in the wild. James P. Gibbs, leader of the study, confirmed:

"It's one of the greatest conservation success stories."

Baby Giant Tortoises are Protected Until Age Five

Their shells remain soft until then, making them easy prey

Giant Tortoise Breeding Center in Villamil taken on December 22nd, 2009
Credit: Michael R Perry on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Could There Still Be Another George or Georgina Alive?

A 2012 study by Yale researchers published in Biological Conservation found DNA evidence to suggest that his kind might still exist. 

Research scientists collected DNA from over 1,600 giant tortoises and found 17 had ancestors from Lonesome George's species. These 17 tortoises were hybrids, but it is possible that some might be the offspring of a purebred Pinta (Chelonoidis abingdoni) tortoise.

Furthermore, five of those hybrids were juveniles, suggesting that purebred tortoises - like George - may still be roaming a remote part of the area.

Yet, according to the Galapagos Conservancy, no pure Pinta tortoises have been found; however hybrid Pinta tortoises may help to restore tortoise populations to Pinta Island.

Even so, the inscription on Lonesome George's information panel is an inspiration to all of us to save the world's declining species:

"Whatever happens to this single animal, let him always remind us that the fate of all living things on Earth is in human hands."

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