Lonesome George: The Last Pinta Tortoise on the Galapagos Islands
| Wildlife & Flora
Lonesome George was a Pinta Island tortoise living in the Galapagos Islands, known as the rarest creature in the world and the last member of his subspecies until he died in 2012 at the age of 102. Adored worldwide, he has been a powerful symbol for conservation efforts in the Galapagos and around the world. This is Lonesome George’s story, and a testament to why he is so worth remembering and what his legacy means for conservation efforts going forward.
The First Sighting of Lonesome George
Lonesome George was first spotted on the Pinta island in the Galapagos on November 1, 1971 by Jozsef Vagvolgyi of Hungary. Much of the island’s vegetation had been destroyed by feral goats that had been previously released on the island, and without enough food to eat the population of the indigenous C.n.abingdonii “Pinta Tortoises” had been reduced to this single individual.
The discovery of this Pinta tortoise quickly became a media sensation, with the American media referring to him as Lonesome George, after a TV comedian George Gobel who went by the same name. The name quickly stuck.
Attempts to Perpetuate the Species
As the last known tortoise of his species, Lonesome George was relocated to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, as researchers hoped to find additional Pinta tortoises. While searching the island of Pinta and the world’s zoos, researchers also made attempts to find a suitable mate for George, with rewards up to $10,000 for anyone who could find one.
After decades of failed attempts, George was finally penned with two females of a different subspecies in hopes of perpetuating the species in 2011. Eggs were produced, though none were hatched, and it was clear that there were no other Pinta tortoises elsewhere in the world.
The Pinta tortoise was then pronounced functionally extinct while Lonesome George was in captivity.
The Death of Lonesome George
On June 24th 2012, Lonesome George was found dead by his caretaker, Fausto Llerena. The director of the Galapagos National Park announced that the cause of death was heart failure consistent with the end of the natural life cycle of a tortoise (in other words, he simply died of old age).
His body was then frozen and shipped to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where it would be preserved by taxidermists with input from scientists.
Shortly after, a dispute broke out between the Ecuadorean ministry and the Galapagos Islands over where the preserved body of the Galapagos giant tortoise should be housed (the government wants him displayed in the capital city of Quito, but the Galapagos believe he deserves to return home to the islands that he represents).
The Impact of Lonesome George on Conservation
Lonesome George quickly became a symbol for conservation, and the importance of prioritizing such efforts. Inscribed on Lonesome George’s enclosure was the quote, “Whatever happens to this single animal, let him always remind us that the fate of all living things on Earth is in human hands.”
The original habitat of the Pinta tortoise had been destroyed by the feral goats, which were brought to the island to live somewhere they did not belong. Local fishermen wanted the goats on the island so that they would have a supply of fresh meat, however the animals destroyed the vegetation that the Pinta tortoise needed to survive. This was the first instance of how human interference impacted the fate of the turtles.
In the late 1990s, Project Isabela launched on Pinta island, aiming to eliminate the unnatural goat presence, and use human interference for good. By 2003, Pinta was declared “goat free”. Now, Project Pinta has launched on the island, aimed at restoring the habitat so that the giant tortoises can return (though they will be a slightly different species than the original Pinta tortoise).
Updates on the Pinta Tortoise
Since the death of Lonesome George, there have been some positive updates to suggest that the species may not have died with the sole survivor after all.
By 2012, researchers had identified 17 tortoises that are partially descended from the same subspecies as Lonesome George, leading them to believe that purebred individuals may still be alive.
In 2015, Yale researchers reported the discovery of another species, Chelonoidis donfastoi, which has a 90% DNA match to the Pinta tortoise. Thus, scientists believe this could potentially be used to resurrect the species.
We can only hope that the story of Lonesome George continues to inspire others to understand the principal role that humans play in conservation, and the importance of doing so before it is too late. Hopefully future updates will show that it is not too late for the Pinta tortoise after all! Contact Us to learn more about Pinta Islands and our Galapagos Islands Tours.