The internet was abuzz recently with the tragic news that Lonesome George, the last living representative of Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni, has died. First discovered in 1971, the solitary Pinta Island Tortoise quickly became a poignant symbol for conservation.
The Galapagos tortoise is an iconic symbol of the rich biodiversity present in the Galapagos Islands. The differing shell types among subspecies helped inspire Charles Darwin as he pondered his theory of evolution. However, the slow-moving oddities were easy targets for hungry sailors, pirates, and traders passing through the area and were hunted nearly into extinction by the early 1900s.
Although nicknamed “Lonesome,” George did not lack for company. The famous tortoise received over 180,000 visitors a year at the aptly named Charles Darwin Research Station.
Multiple attempts were made at mating Lonesome George to females of a related tortoise subspecies. A reward of $10,000 was offered for the discovery of a suitable female companion for the solitary tortoise. Mating attempts were made in 2008 and 2009, but none of the eggs proved viable. It soon became clear that the Pinta Island Tortoise subspecies would end with Lonesome George.
The question of conservation and species diversity has always been a charged topic. On the one hand, species diversity is a strong indicator of overall ecosystem health. However, money and resources wasted on preserving a beloved yet ultimately inviable species could be better spent saving species with an actual shot at survival. Questions about cloning “Lonesome George” in an effort to preserve the species miss the point entirely. Without a varied gene pool and a chance to exist in the wild without human help, any Pinta Island Tortoises created through artificial means would bear the indignity of being living museums specimens, as unnatural as a glass-eyed taxidermy imprisoned in a diorama.
More disturbing than the loss of Lonesome George, who gave the Pinta Island Tortoise a 40-year reprieve from extinction, is the search to declare the next “rarest animal” on earth. Will we now have a “Lonesome” Yangtze River Dolphin or kakapo? Extinction is occurring faster than at any other point in the Earth’s history, and humans are largely to blame. Lonesome George rightly deserves his period of mourning, but the sad tale of the Pinta Island Tortoise should be a signal to invest in conservation before a species is functionally, if not technically, extinct.
It is almost impossible to see the extinction of the Pinta Island Tortoise as anything short of a disaster. But it must be remembered that extinction is the natural and inevitable fate of any species. Only a tiny fraction of the huge diversity of life forms that have ever existed on earth is alive today.
In his poem “Lonesome George,” the poet X.J. Kennedy writes, “For a long moment we bind /sympathetic looks/we holdouts of our kind/ like rhymed lines, printed books.” The loss of a species does not only apply to ecology or conservation, but it hits us deeper. In confronting extinction, we are facing our own mortality.
Bardo, Matt. “Lonesome George: Does the death of a subspecies matter?” Nature Features. BBC Online. 28 June 2012 < http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/18604240>
Dell’Amore, Christine. Lonesome George, Last of His Kind, Dies in Galápagos.. National Geographic Daily News. 25 June 2012.
Kennedy, X.J. “Lonesome George.” The Atlantic. June 2012.
McCarthy, Michael. “Lonesome George: The Last of a Dying Breed.” Belfast Telegraph. 28 June 2012. < http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/news-analysis/lonesome-george-the-last-of-a-dying-breed-of-tortoise-16177685.html>
Reynolds, Robert P.; Marlow, Ronald W. (1983). “Lonesome George, the Pinta Island Tortoise: A Case of Limited Alternatives”. Noticias de Galápagos (Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Isles) 37: 14–7.