I’m sorry to start the week with such mournful news, but yesterday morning Lonesome George was found dead, stretched out in the apparent process of reaching towards his favourite drinking spot.

For the uninformed, Lonesome George was not the unlucky-in-love relation of Curious George, he was instead a Giant Tortoise and the very real inhabitant of Pinta, a small island located in the North of the Galapagos collection of islands.  The Galapagos is known for its unique collection of wildlife, one of which being the Galapagos Giant Tortoise (Geochelone Elephantopus Abingdoni).  Although his age was estimated to be over 100 years old, his species are believed to be capable of living anything up to 200 years of age, therefore his cause of death will be investigated to see what we can learn about tortoise conservation.

Giant Tortoise numbers on Pinta had been decimated from the 19th Century onwards by a combination of being taken as a food source by sailors, and also due to goats being introduced to Pinta by fishermen who sought to establish an alternative food source, which resulted in a horribly mismatched competition for vegetation, and therefore it was thought that they had all but died out in the wild.

Until 1971 that is, when a goat hunting warden found a solo male Giant Tortoise, and he and his colleagues made the decision to relocate him to where there was  a captive breeding program for Galapagos Tortoises.  They named the tortoise Lonesome George after George Gobel, an American actor and comedian who labeled himself ‘Lonesome George’ which became the nickname that stuck with him for the rest of his career.

George didn’t quite live up to his name as he was hardly lonesome, with his pen being packed with female tortoises from Isabela Island (also located within the Galapagos chain) in the hope that tortoise magic would happen.  However although some hardcore ‘adult hugs’ occurred, no fertile eggs resulted – possibly because of a genetic mismatch between George’s species of Tortoise from Pinta and the Isabela lovelies – and George failed to sire any further little George’s.

There was always the hope that with the removal of the majority of the goats from Pinta, and the vegetation responding enthusiastically to the removal of their main predator, any Geochelone Elephantopus Abingdoni would be encouraged to come out of hiding and be more easily identified and observed.  Young Giant Tortoises are small and secretive by nature, so would be harder to located in the subsequent vegetation explosion, but there was always the hope that a female would be discovered and could be united with Lonesome George and successfully kickstart the population and help restore the natural ecology of Pinta.

Alas, it was not to be.  Lonesome George passing away means that there is every chance that his breed died out with him, joining the sad numbers of species driven to extinction by man’s greed and lack of forward planning.  Although there are still many, many other subspecies of Tortoise living in the Galapagos island chain, the Geochelone Elephantopus Abingdoni is no longer among them.

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