Poor old “Lonesome George”
When Lindblad’s National Geographic Endeavour anchors off Santa Cruz Island, we go ashore for the entire day to spend much of our time with the Galapagos’ iconic giant tortoises. And to meet a world-famous tortoise estimated at 100 years old known as “Lonesome George,” perhaps the last of his race. Of the 15 different races of tortoise that once lived on 15 different islands of the Galapagos, three are now extinct, almost four.
Lonesome George, estimated at 100 years old and considered in good health, is the last remaining member of that fourth race. Guinness World Records calls him the world’s “rarest living creature.” The very last of his kind. He supposedly was named after a popular 1950’s comedian, George Goebel, whose nickname was “Lonesome George.”
Considering the near extinction of the tortoises on Pinta Island, it’s hard to comprehend that giant tortoises were once commonplace throughout the world, living not only in the Americas but Europe and Asia, going back to the age of the dinosaurs. Yet what depleted Lonesome George’s race is what killed off almost all the world’s giant tortoises.
Darwin Research Station Captive Breeding Sign
Scientists say the huge tortoises of eons ago were unable to compete successfully with the many herbivores found on the continents, which is why today they exist only on isolated islands where there is no competition. Thanks to Charles Darwin’s writings, the Galapagos tortoises are the best known of the remaining giant tortoises but they also survive on the islands of Madagascar and the Seychelles, both in the Indian Ocean.
The Galapagos, of course, owe their name to the giant tortoises, taken from the Spanish word Galápago meaning saddle. Saddleback tortoises aren’t as large or as impressive looking as the bell-shaped shells of animals like Lonesome George. The smaller saddlebacks, however, enjoy a shell shape that allows them to extend their necks higher to feed. Understandably, saddlebacks normally reside on islands with less vegetation compared to the bigger, dome-shaped tortoises still common on islands like Santa Cruz, where the vegetation is relatively rich.
Lonesome George is from Pinta Island, where the vegetation was decimated by introduced, roaming goats. Like the giant tortoises that once thrived worldwide, those on Pinta Island were out-competed. After Lonesome George was found in 1971, he was moved to the Darwin Research Station but it wasn’t until 1993–20 years later, not exactly a speedy reaction time–that the first attempt was made to breed him.
George was provided with two female tortoises of different subspecies in an attempt to produce offspring. George and his revolving harem produced eggs but all to date have been infertile. Even if all the eggs had hatched, technically the Pinta Island race still would be extinct after Lonesome George’s death since the offspring would be of mixed, not pure, blood. (Shades of Lord Voldemort!)
To preserve the Pinta Island subspecies, Lonesome George needs offspring with a Pinta Island female. A $10,000 reward is available for any zoo or private collector willing to provide a Pinta female to mate with Lonesome George but no females have been offered. Ironically, it’s possible there is a second Pinta Island male tortoise slightly younger than George which lives in the Prague Zoo. World renown tortoise expert Peter Pritchard considers the shell pattern of the Prague tortoise to be similar to that of George’s but no DNA tests have been conducted to confirm or refute the possibility. For the time being, rescuing the Pinta Island tortoise subspecies is at a stalemate that may never be resolved.
Our walk from the Santa Cruz Zodiac to enter the Darwin Research Station and reach Lonesome George takes about 20 minutes. We pass several turtle pens where species from other islands are being effectively bred. Our view into Lonesome George’s pen from a walkway overlooking it is depressing. He has a huge space to roam, able to hold scores of giant tortoises. He looks so large compared to the females present to entice him. No wonder George isn’t turned on by them. The pen seems to have everything a tortoise could want with lots of shade, vegetation and a huge concrete pond. From pictures I’ve seen of George on various web sites, he rarely leaves the pond’s edge.
Only a few steps away from Lonesome George is a crowded pen with an Espanola tortoise named Diego, a far more energetic but lesser known male tortoise largely responsible for bringing back his island’s population. Only 15 members remained on Espanola due to the impact of voracious goats. When the government began its goat eradication program on Espanola, the entire population was brought to the Darwin Research Station in hopes of increasing their numbers. But an unexpected problem cropped up: all of the males refused to mate.
Diego, the studliest stud of Galapagos tortoises
The San Diego Zoo in California called the Darwin Research Station about a rogue Espanola male tortoise of theirs which was attacking all the other males. Did the Darwin Station want him? Yes, was the fateful answer. When this bully arrived, now named Diego in honor of the zoo, he promptly expended all his energy on the receptive females and quickly created a new generation of Espanola tortoises. Diego’s prowess inspired the formerly disinterested Espanola males. The resulting orgy sent more than 1,600 tortoises back to their homeland. Diego remains at the Darwin Station to continue his good work. He deserves a memorial, though I can’t think of a way it would be PG.
Meanwhile, Lonesome George is rarely interested, perhaps due to “low T” or maybe he just needs to be inspired (instructed?) as Diego’s buddies were. From what I see, George’s pen is cut off from all other turtle breeding pens with no opportunity for him to see what is going on around him. He lives in splendid isolation–like someone being confined to a large mansion with his two women–while Diego and his crew are out having fun in the back yard.
George needs to be moved where he can watch Diego in action and get over his performance anxiety. Or performance ignorance. According to our Lindblad guides, they even played music to help inspire Diego. Well, show George some turtle porn. Do something to provide him the same type of motivation given to Diego, who was a bad boy and probably didn’t need it anyway.
A cynic might say the Charles Darwin Foundation which operates the Charles Darwin Research Station deliberately is keeping George lonesome and uninspired in order to preserve him as a powerful conservation symbol. Not only is George the Darwin Station’s most famous celebrity and its main attraction, he keeps both the Darwin Research Station and the Galapagos National Park in the public eye.
If there can be no true happy ending without another Pinta Island female, why not? (Lonesome George died June 24, 2012, without ever successfully mating. He was the last of his kind.)
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