|Lonesome George was the last of his species.|
By Chalres Hulse, The New York Times, July 2, 2012
PUERTO AYORA, Galápagos Islands — Lonesome George is gone, and there will never be another like him.
George, the last giant tortoise of his subspecies in this archipelago, was found dead in his corral at the Charles Darwin Research Station here the morning of June 24 — to the shock of his devoted caretakers, who had hoped he would survive for decades to continue his line.
The cause was natural, according to a necropsy, with the liver showing definite signs of aging. Giant tortoises can live well into their second century; George, who was brought here in 1972 from the northern island of Pinta, was thought to be around 100.
The Galápagos is home to other types of giant tortoises, though their numbers remain low and their populations vulnerable. But in recent years, it was George who came to symbolize endangered species around the world, and he was enmeshed in the soul of the Galápagos — enshrined in stamps, logos and countless T-shirts.
His loss has left the islands’ human inhabitants a bit bereft.
“It is a very sad story for all of us,” said Christian Saa, a national park ranger, guide and naturalist who had never been at the research center when George was not on hand.
“We were expecting to have George another 50 years,” he said as he stood before the pen, which houses a heart-shaped pool in which the tortoise’s caretakers had hoped to entice him to produce an heir with two biologically close female tortoises who remain. “It feels kind of empty.”
George’s death was a singular moment, representing the extinction of a creature right before human eyes — not dinosaurs wiped out eons ago or animals consigned to oblivion by hunters who assumed there would always be more. That thought was expressed at the shops and restaurants that are the research center’s neighbors on Charles Darwin Avenue.
“We have witnessed extinction,” said a blackboard in front of one business. “Hopefully we will learn from it.”
It especially struck home with Fausto Llerena, the 72-year-old ranger who cared for George for many of the tortoise’s 40 years at the center. Mr. Llerena was part of the original expedition that found George on Pinta Island in 1972, when all the tortoises there were thought to be gone, and brought him here to Santa Cruz Island. Through the years, he said, George had come to recognize him.
“He came toward me and he stopped and stretched his neck out, opened his mouth like a greeting, welcoming me,” said Mr. Llerena, interviewed while he was weighing and measuring young tortoises that the center hopes to eventually return to the wild. “That was his behavior with me and my companions at work.”
On June 24, Mr. Llerena noticed that George was not in his usual morning spot. On closer inspection, he found the tortoise dead. Several days later, he said it was still hard to fathom.
“He was like a member of the family to me,” he added. “To me, he was everything.”
Over the decades, notables from many countries had visited George to ooh and ahh, and his death has drawn worldwide attention. But here on these isolated islands, the loss is much more personal.
Washington Tapia, a senior official at Ecuador’s park service, said he cried when he heard the news; for him, it was like losing his grandparents. The plan now, he said, is to prepare George for display in a new tortoise museum.
The Pinta subspecies of giant tortoises was hardly the first Galápagos animal to disappear, Mr. Tapia said. Over the centuries, whalers, sailors, explorers and pirates gathered tens of thousands of tortoises for food and introduced nonnative species that crowded out indigenous ones.
“Sadly, it is not the first species that has become extinct,” he said. “But because of the reputation that he had, the reaction to it is more unusual.”
After George arrived here in 1972, researchers at the center used numerous strategies to get him to reproduce, introducing him to female tortoises and even trying artificial insemination. A $10,000 reward was offered for identifying a Pinta Island female. Hopes were raised when tortoise eggs were found in the enclosure, but they turned out to be unfertilized.
Lonesome George, who was thought to have been named for the clueless character popularized by the 1950s comedian George Gobel, was not universally popular in the islands. In 1995 sea-cucumber fishermen blockaded the research center to protest proposed environmental restrictions, shouting “Death to Lonesome George!” The standoff ended without harm to George, and the Galápagos have embraced eco-tourism as a way to balance conservation and economic need.
Park officials say they hope George’s death drives home the lesson that humanity must take greater care in interacting with other species. And though George was a powerful emblem of the Galápagos, they see his loss as a beginning as much as an end.
“George is very important, but the Galápagos is more than just George,” Mr. Tapia said. “The Galápagos is one of the last places in the world where we can see those things, nature in its purest state.”