Last week, the world was shaken by the sad news of the death of the most famous living animal in the planet: the legendary Galapagos giant tortoise, known worldwide as Lonesome George. He was the last individual of his species (chelonidis abingdoni) and died of natural causes, as determined by a special necropsy, at an age estimated to be well over 100 years, without leaving descendants. With his demise, one more animal species became extinct in the planet and the Galapagos Islands lost the physical presence of its most emblematic animal symbol, one who attracted more than 180.000 visitors every year.
The known story of Lonesome George began in 1972 when an expedition of the Galapagos National Park and a small party of biologists and scientists undertook a voyage to the remote island of Pinta or Abingdon, in the north of the Archipelago. It was a combined research trip and a special mission to hunt a rapidly expanding population of introduced feral goats which were devastating the island’s flora. Until then, the common belief was that the giant tortoise species, endemic and unique to that particular island, was already extinct. However, much to the surprise of the expedition members, a live adult tortoise, considered then to have somewhere around 80 years of estimated age; was found healthy, roaming about the rocky and scrubby surface of the island. An intensive search for more individuals proved that he was the only one, and thus, the last one. To make the story more interesting, the specimen found was of a special race of the so called “saddle-back” types; considerably rare and only found on a few islands of the extreme south or extreme north of the Archipelago, mainly on relatively flat and mostly dry islands. His saddle-shaped carapace and long neck, capable of stretching out a considerable height to reach out for food growing on somewhat high scrubs or cacti, is in itself a magnificent example of adaptation and genetic diversity.
Due to his lack of company, he was soon dubbed as “Lonesome George” and was taken, with all the necessary care, to the Giant Tortoises Rearing Center of the Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Research Station on the island of Santa Cruz, to preserve its integrity and to begin a frantic search for a female of his species, in the archipelago or abroad, with whom he might reproduce, in order to save the species from extinction. Regretfully, four decades of search without results, as well as experiments with other most closely compatible females from other islands, only produced a few batches of eggs, which, after arising great expectations, turned out to be infertile. Meanwhile, his unique and rare body structure, along with the story behind him, converted the relatively shy reptile into a science and tourism celebrity, and of course the center of attention being “the last living individual” of his particular species.
While the story of Lonesome George had a sad end, his legacy for conservation of endangered species in Galapagos is immense. Prompted by his example, another species of unique tortoises from the southernmost island of Española or Hood, of which only 13 individuals were found around the same time and also brought into the Breeding and Rearing Center in Santa Cruz, resulted, three decades later, on a repatriated population of more than 2.000 young individuals living safe and healthy on their home-island. A species which was very close to extinction had been salvaged for the future and is being closely monitored, to learn more about its biology, habits and behavior, in order to establish the most adequate management measures to ensure its long-term conservation. Many more examples of ongoing conservation programs are being conducted with other species of giant tortoises; with land iguanas, with a rare species of storm petrel (a sea bird which nests on rocky crevices in the highlands of a few of the isles), and other species of fauna and flora which are being cared for, studied and protected, to preserve the uniqueness of the amazing Galapagos Archipelago. The Galapagos and the world scientific community mourn the loss of the famed Lonesome George, but, in addition to his embalmed body being exhibited at a special place for posterity, his legacy for the islands conservation will remain as a symbol and icon, fueling a greater compromise amongst the researchers and National Park managers and conservationists.