The People In Between | Lonesome George: Icon of the Galapagos

Earlier this week, Lonesome George, the world's last Giant tortoise of its kind died at the age of 100. Jason Smith pays tribute to a potent symbol of humanity's need to reconsider its relationship with nature.

New in Ceasefire, Politics, The People in Between - Posted on Wednesday, June 27, 2012 0:00 - 0 Comments

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“Lonesome George will forever be a giant reminder that our small world is a shared one.” (Photo: Jason Smith/Ceasefire)

On Sunday, Fausto Llerena walked into the enclosure to find George, (Lonesome George,) a Pinta Giant tortoise, had passed away. Having been his carer for the last 40 years, his sadness was understandable, but his death will reverberate around the world as a sub-species goes extinct and with it the poster boy of the Galapagos Islands.

George was Lonesome not by personality but by necessity: he was devoid of any others members of his sub-species, Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii. This was, naturally, not always the case, but since the accidental discovery of the islands in 1535 his kind and his similarly giant cousins have had their habitats destroyed, their resources plundered and have even been hunted for food.

The giant tortoises have always been synonymous with the volcanic islands off the coast of Ecuador; indeed, the name Galapagos has its roots in a Spanish word for saddle, used by early visitors to describe the saddleback tortoises they encountered.

Soon, pirates were using the islands as hideouts, privateers had based themselves there, and whalers were occupying the surrounding waters. But it was Charles Darwin’s voyage there on the Beagle in 1835 that was to bring the islands to the world’s attention when their similar but separately evolved inhabitants inspired his theory of evolution.

One might think that such a leap in understanding would go some way to motivating a protection of their ecosystems, but even the scientific ships were using the tortoises as a source of food, and the islands went on to become a base for the US during WWII, during which time some of the landscape was used as bombing practice.

After hundreds of years of upheaval, it was no surprise that scientists had assumed George’s sub-species had died out. But then, in 1972, George was discovered wandering on Pinta Island, mate-less and lonesome. He became a beloved institution of the Galapagos, an icon of the longevity of life but also of its desperate fragility.

Attempts were made to encourage him to reproduce with a similar sub-species and he was not entirely averse to such measures, but alas the eggs produced were infertile. He was destined to remain the sole carrier of his genes; the end of his hereditary line. He died at the tender age of 100, far from the 200 years commonly reached by his compatriots.

The death of any large, long-living creature is always poignant, but this was no ordinary vertebrate. George was a symbol of how delicately balanced life is, and how we must think carefully about our actions if we want to protect it. Sub-species may come and go, but Lonesome George will forever remain a giant reminder that our small world is a shared one.

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