Lonesome George – The Passing of a Conservation Icon

Ecuador’s Galapágos Islands are well known for their fascinating prehistoric-type animals, and are closely linked with the ground-breaking work of evolutionist Charles Darwin. It is in this wealth of natural diversity and history that Lonesome George gained fame as the last known of his species – Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii, a subspecies of Galápagos tortoise endemic to Pinta Island of the Galápagos archipelago. Lonesome George also gained the affection of his keepers and the many, many eco-conscious tourists who have had the opportunity of viewing and interacting with him, and he became a symbol for conservation efforts internationally. So, June 24 was a profoundly sad day for many when it was discovered that Lonesome George had died in his enclosure at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island of natural causes related to aging. It is believed that the tortoise was at least 100 years old.

The death of the much-loved tortoise means that hopes for George mating successfully with females close to his subspecies have been dashed and, as far as can be determined his sub-species Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii, known alternatively as the Pinta Island tortoise, Pinta giant tortoise, Abingdon Island tortoise and Abingdon Island giant tortoise, is now extinct.

It was in December 1971, that Hungarian scientist József Vágvölgyi first spotted George on Pinta Island. With the vegetation on the island destroyed by feral goats, indigenous animals had dwindled and George was the only of his kind left. He was moved to the Charles Darwin Research Station and enclosed with two females of a different subspecies in the hopes of producing some offspring, but with no success. Eggs were produced with several of his mates, but none were viable, most likely due to the fact that they were of different sub-species. Meanwhile, because George was in captivity, the Pinta tortoise was declared functionally extinct.

Lonesome George has been immortalized on Ecuador’s bank notes and stamps, and featured on T-shirts and other eco-tourism related paraphernalia. He even had a book written about him – Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of the World’s Most Famous Tortoise by Henry Nicholls. While efforts to produce offspring sired by the famous tortoise failed, Lonesome George prompted research which has been beneficial to tortoise populations on other islands which are now being regenerated, with their habitat being preserved in an effort to prevent history repeating itself.