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Lonesome George - Last Of The Pinta Island Tortoises - died in June 2012
The sad death of Lonesome George
Since writing this article, Lonesome George has sadly died. He passed away in June 2012 and his subspecies of Giant tortoise is possibly now extinct.
Read the read of this article about this magnificent creature and how I was lucky enough to visit him before he died.
The rarest animal on the planet
Lonesome George is a giant tortoise and he lives in the Galapagos Islands - an archipelego in the Pacific ocean, off the coast of Ecuador. He is the last known member of his subspecies - the Pinta island tortoise, and has been labelled the rarest animal in the world by the Guinness book of records. The scientific name for this subspecies of tortoise is Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni. He can be found in captivity in the Charles Darwin Research Station, which is a short walk from the harbor town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island. He is estimated to be around 80 years old and scientists are so determined to keep his species from extinction that they have offered a reward of $10,000 dollars for a female of his species. To date no zoo, private keeper, explorer or scientist has been successful in claiming the reward, and so lonesome George remains the last of his kind on our planet.
George - old and lonely, but still majestic
How Lonesome George sadly came to be the last of his kind
In the 18th and 19th and 20th centuries, the Galapagos Islands were frequented by whalers, navel ships, explorers, pirates and settlers. Their actions led to a serious decline in tortoise populations across all 10 islands that the tortoises lived on. Sailors would often take tortoises with them on long journeys as they could live for many months without food or water and therefore were a good source of food - particularly useful when scurvy was such a problem in those times. Native Ecuadorians used to harvest them for meat and oil. People also introduced foreign animals which then had a devastating effect on the islands. Rats and pigs ate the eggs, donkeys trampled on the nests and dogs ate tortoises up to 4 years of age. Equally damaging were the goats which all but wiped out the species of cactus most relied on by the tortoises for food and water, the Opuntia cactus - the prickly pear. Huge efforts have gone into ridding the islands of goats, and the guides now tell tourists 'we don't like to tell people we exterminated them on Pinta island, so we say we relocated them - to heaven'.
The Opuntia cactus - vital for the Galapagos tortoises
Rescued from the wild
The Charles Darwin Research Station opened in 1965. Lonesome George was discovered on Pinta Island in 1972 by the Hungarian József Vágvölgyi, and was then relocated to the research station in the knowledge that they had found an extremely precious and endangered animal: the only remaining representative of the Pinta island tortoise subspecies.
George's sign at the research station
Efforts to find George a suitable mate
After he was placed in captivity, scientists decided to try and breed Lonesome George with various different female subspecies, but George remained uninterested and was often quite hostile towards others placed in his pen. In 1993 scientists placed 2 females with him that later turned out to be shown as the closest subspecies genetically to George: the Geochelone nigra becki which exist on Isabela island. In 2008, much to the delight of the entire world it seemed, one of the females laid 13 eggs, but sadly none of them hatched. Then again in 2009 a female laid 5 eggs, but once again, none of them hatched successfully.
What now for George?
Efforts still continue to provide the optimal conditions for George to breed with his 2 female companions. There is till time, considering how long tortoises can live for. Scientists from around the world have been consulted for years for ideas on how to bring about success. The entire scientific community that has any interest in tortoises just doesn't appear happy with the idea that there is only one Pinta island tortoise left There was also some hope in the last few years that there may be more of his subspecies still on either Pinta or Isabela island that have not been discovered yet, after scientists found a tortoise with half of George's genes that may suggest that pure breeds are still out there to be found, and $10,000 dollars with them...
The video below tells an interesting story about how local fisherman, while protesting about fishing restrictions, threatened to kill George. It also explains how a scientist was brought in to manually encourage George to be more friendly, and then great footage of George himself at the 1:58 minute mark.
A BBC video about George
The giant tortoises live on...
Fortunately he is not the only giant tortoise living in the Galapagos Islands. There may not be nearly as many as there were before people came along, but they can still be found in abundance, depending on your definition of the word abundance of course! When I visited, it certainly seemed like there were many pockets of them dotted around the islands, and just about every day tour seemed to involve some encounter with another group of them. There they would be, lumbering their way across the rocky landscape, their shells literally creaking as they clumsily tried to navigate across the stones. They slipped, they tumbled, they wobbled. Graceful they are not. Fast they are not. Entertaining and enchanting they most definitely are.
Struggling to move across the rocks
Last of a sub-species, but not the last of a species
So whilst Lonesome George may possibly be the last of his particular sub-species, fortunately he is not the last of his entire species. There are plenty more tortoises to be found, mysteriously defying all common sense and somehow managing to carry their enormous shells around with them. That said though, there is no denying the fact that as with so many animals on our planet facing extinction, it is very sad that there possibly only remains one Pinta island tortoise.