There is a tiny island in the Pacific I know I’ll never visit. But I’d love to. It’s a volcano called Pinta, once known to buccaneers and whalers as Abingdon Island, and home to the world’s most endangered creature – the Galápagos giant tortoise Geochelone abingdoni. Only one individual survives and his name is Lonesome George.

I’m not drawn to Pinta out of a desire to glimpse this reptilian rarity; he doesn’t live there any more. But Lonesome George’s birthplace still intrigues me. It is one of the least known of the Galápagos Islands, a string of a dozen sizeable volcanoes some 600 miles off the west coast of Ecuador that make up the best-preserved tropical archipelago left on earth.

Pinta has been changed forever by the arrival of humans and yet careful conservation is slowly returning it to something close to its natural order. It is, for me, a symbol of both destruction and restoration. Its story reveals the turbulent human history, the troubled present and the uncertain future of these stunning islands.


Nearly 30 years ago, the Galápagos acquired World Heritage status. In April last year, a UNESCO delegation visited the islands to assess whether it’s time they were upgraded to their “List of World Heritage in Danger”. Ecuador’s new president Rafael Correa took the opportunity to voice his thoughts. Where previous presidents have turned a blind eye to the rapid development of the Galápagos, Correa seemed to confront these threats to the long-term future of these islands, declaring them “at risk” and “in imminent ecological danger”.

He is right. In a matter of decades, the Galápagos Islands have undergone an extraordinary transition from a haunted and inhospitable outpost to the world’s premier ecotourism destination. In the 1950s, Galápagos tourism was virtually non-existent and the number of people living in this far-out archipelago was fewer than 2000. Today, some 150,000 tourists visit these islands every year and the population has swollen to more than 30,000. The Galápagos, once the place Ecuador dumped its convicts is now the country’s most desirable province. It’s gone from hell-on-earth to paradise in just 50 years.

The foundations for this journey were laid more than 170 years ago when HMS Beagle sailed a course from island to island putting together a detailed chart of the archipelago for the British Admiralty. The ship’s naturalist Charles Darwin took the chance to explore. Although his behaviour would raise eyebrows today, his fascination with the striking geology and extraordinary natural history of these islands anticipates the wonder experienced by the 21st century tourist.

Darwin rode the giant tortoises as if they were horses: ‘I frequently got on their backs, and then giving a few raps on the hinder part of their shells, they would rise up and walk away’, he wrote in his Journal of Researches. He pestered a land iguana busy excavating a burrow: ‘I watched one for a long time; till half its body was buried; I then walked up and pulled it by the tail.’ He gave marine iguanas a hard time too: ‘They will sooner allow a person to catch hold of their tails than jump in the water … I threw one several times as far as I could, into a deep pool left by the retiring tide; but it invariably returned in a direct line to the spot where I stood.’ Darwin was mesmerized by the tameness of the creatures, particularly the birds: ‘All of them often approached sufficiently near to be killed with a switch, and sometimes, as I myself tried, with a cap or hat. A gun is here almost superfluous; for with the muzzle I pushed a hawk off a branch of a tree.’

Just over two later, in his journal of 1837, Darwin gave the species of the Galápagos special credit for shaping his thoughts on evolution. It was, however, a long time before Darwin and the Galápagos came to be spoken in the same breath. Cambridge historian of science John van Wyhe has trawled through publications from the late 19th century onwards in an effort to understand how Darwin and the Galápagos have come to be so strongly associated.

By the turn of the 20th century, few could question Darwin’s contribution to human thought. It’s of little surprise then that in 1909 – the centenary of his birth and the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species – the man and his legacy were celebrated in a flurry of popular articles. Several of these picked up on and ran with the importance of Darwin’s Galápagos experience, says van Wyhe.

At the next big Darwin jamboree in 1959, the bond between Darwin and the Galápagos became tighter still with the creation of the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of the Galápagos. So by the time the first tourist vessel – a 66-passenger ship from Chile – entered Galápagos waters in 1967, Darwin was well placed to fuel the subsequent growth of tourism in the islands. Indeed, the CDF’s operative base – the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS)  – is located on the bustling tourist-focused town of Puerto Ayora and the single largest settlement in the archipelago.

Such rapid development has created a whole load of urgent needs: building materials, waste disposal, freshwater, food and energy. In the early stages of population expansion some of these could be met locally. Increasingly, however, the Galápagos population relies on the outside world.

The transportation of fossil fuels to the islands illustrates this dependence and some of its consequences. Millions of gallons of diesel are shipped to the islands each year, but the main towns in the Galápagos – Puerto Ayora included – are not blessed by deepwater docks. Tankers therefore siphon off their cargo at a central terminal for subsequent distribution or remain at sea and unload into awaiting barges. Small spills occur all the time and big spills are inevitable. The last major incident took place in January 2001, when the captain of an oil tanker mistook a signal buoy for a lighthouse and steered his ship into San Cristóbal’s appropriately named Wreck Bay. The devastation was not as serious as it could have been – the prevailing northwesterly current and warm weather conditions dispersed much of the ensuing slick and minimized its impact. But movement of such sensitive cargo on this scale means further spills are inevitable.

Yet even in Puerto Ayora, where the predicament of these islands should be obvious, it is not. Every day, hundreds of visitors happily stroll along its buzzing main street, dive into an internet café to check on emails, sit at bars sipping beers, step into a bank’s cool lobby to get some cash and part with it again in one of several delightful souvenir shops. Then they wander over to the CDRS to see conservation in action, barely sensing the transition or indeed tension between the urban and wilderness experience.

It is there at the CDRS that they will see Lonesome George, thought to be the only Pinta tortoise left on earth. This, according to the Guinness World Records, makes him “the rarest living creature”. It is, perhaps, this singular tortoise that best communicates the challenge of meeting human needs without irreparably destroying the unique biodiversity that has evolved over millions of years on these iconic islands. He has become the embodiment of the conservation movement in the Galápagos, a talented anthropomorph who forces visitors to reflect on the impact that tourism and its associated development might have on the future of the islands.


George finds himself in his unenviable position because tortoises taste good. At least they did to sailors who’d spent months at sea being fed the same food day in day out. Within a few centuries of the discovery of the Galápagos in 1535, passing ships made regular tortoise-collecting trips to stock up on this valuable resource.

In some instances, the scale of exploitation was truly staggering. Take, for example, a visit to James Island (now called Santiago) made by the US frigate Essex in 1813. “Four boats were dispatched every morning…and returned at night, bringing with them from 20 to 30 [tortoises] each, averaging about 60 pounds,” wrote Captain David Porter in his Journal of a Cruise. “[I]n four days we had as many as would weigh about 14 tons on board, which was as much as we could conveniently stow.”

Because tortoises can survive long periods without food or water, the sailors carried them on board alive and keep them there, often for months, before tossing their fresh-but-wasting flesh into the pot. For Captain Porter, “No description of stock is so convenient for ships to take to sea with them as the tortoises of those islands; they require no provisions or water for a year, nor is any further attention to them necessary, than that their shells should be preserved unbroken.”

The impact of such exploitation is hard to judge, but on the basis of entries in the logbooks of North American whaling vessels, it looks like several hundred thousand tortoises suffered this fate and at least three of the 14 different species of tortoise in the archipelago – those on Floreana, Santa Fe and Fernandina – disappeared completely.

For most of the 20th century, it was assumed that the Pinta tortoise had also been driven over the extinction precipice. But, in the 1970s, a tortoise unexpectedly reared its head on the island. In March 1972, wardens from the Parque National Galápagos (PNG) – the national park service – found a lone male and transported him to his current home at the CDRS in Puerto Ayora.

There, he became known as Solitario Jorge or Lonesome George, and gradually assumed his current public-relations role. “Whatever happens to this animal, let him always remind us that the fate of all living things is in human hands,” reads the final panel surrounding his enclosure.

There was, however, a flip-side to George’s newfound fame. In January 1995, when the sea-cucumber fishermen took over the offices of the CDRS, they threatened to butcher its animals and Lonesome George bore the brunt of their violent threats.

Until the 1990s, populations of sea cucumber living along the west coast of South America had fed the Asian market for this marine invertebrate. But as the dwindling supply failed to meet increasing demand, fishermen turned to the Galápagos. They had good reason. With their increasing scarcity, sea cucumbers had quite literally become rich pickings. Michael D’Orso summed it up nicely in his 2002 book Plundering Paradise: “As the islanders saw that a three-man crew could make as much as several hundred dollars each in a single day – this in a nation where the average per capita annual income was less than $1,600 – the business exploded.”

In 1986, several years before Lonesome George received his first credible death-threat, the Ecuadorian government decided to clamp down on foreign fishermen entering the Galápagos to exploit its rich marine resources. The Galápagos Marine Resources Reserve was born. But it took another decade to bring clarity to the legal status of this reserve. It was in this transition from full-on exploitation to full-on protection that tensions escalated.

In June 1994, Ecuador’s Fisheries Development Council attempted to steer a course between these conflicting interests and authorized a three-month long “experimental” fishery in which CDRS scientists would attempt to produce some hard-core data on the impact of the pepineros on the sea cucumber population. Some 420 fishermen were given permits to take sea cucumbers on the condition that the total catch would not top 550,000 animals.

Things didn’t quite go to plan. The quota was exceeded within weeks but the fishing continued. After one month, nearly 1000 fishermen were collecting sea cucumbers. About half had no permit. After two months, the catch reached a staggering 10 million animals. An inspection in early December 1994 revealed that almost every boat was breaking some park rule or other. In addition to those vessels without a permit, some were harvesting other protected species like starfish, seahorses and turtles, others had substandard health and living conditions, and much of the fishing gear was illegal. The authorities stopped the season one month short.

The fishermen were not best pleased. On the morning of 3 January 1995, between 20 and 30 pepineros – mostly recent arrivals to the Galápagos from the Ecuadorian mainland – set up a blockade in Puerto Ayora on the road leading to the offices of the CDRS and PNG. They demanded the fishery be reopened and for three days, stopped employees entering or leaving and prevented tourists touring the station grounds. At night, the pepineros played cards and got drunk. “Muerte al Solitario Jorge!” – “Death to Lonesome George!” came the chant. Staff and volunteers trapped inside the compound took turns to patrol the breeding centre, regularly checking on Lonesome George and his fellow animals. The January uprising fizzled out without further drama.

More was in store later that year, when protestors took control of the airports on Baltra and San Cristóbal and blocked the entrance to the CDRS and PNG once more. At around midday the Congressman for the Galápagos and prime aggitator Eduardo Velíz made an impassioned broadcast on public radio, encouraging the pepineros to enter, sack and burn station and park buildings.

The siege lasted over a week. Each evening, as drink took hold of the rabble, their threats of violence towards staff and animals increased. The chanting penetrated the drizzle and yells periodically bounced off the lava. It was only with the news that a respected member of the CDRS and PNG staff had died in a car accident that the situation improved. The pepineros in Puerto Ayora relaxed their blockade to let those trapped inside attend the funeral of their colleague. When the mourners returned a few days later, the protestors had gone.


So Lonesome George’s story exposes some of the strains that lie just beneath the mesmerizingly smooth experience of a typical Galápagos tourist. He reveals the immense difficulty of doing conservation where humans are trying to live.

There are those who think it’s not difficult but impossible, that wildlife conservation only really works is there are no humans trying to eke out a living on the same patch. One conservation biologist I’ve met, who exuded a tiresome loathing for humankind, even went so far as tinkering with his mathematical models to simulate the “eradication” of humans from his study sites. Unsurprisingly, the native species bounce back quickly and do rather well out of this hypothetical scenario. It may be interesting as a thought experiment but for most places – the Galápagos included – it’s hardly a practical revelation.

A more workable idea, though one that also invites controversy, is that of “direct payment” – paying people not to damage their surroundings. It’s based on persuasive logic: if you are driving from point A to point B with just one tank of petrol, do you take the direct route or the scenic route? Clearly, opting for the direct route improves the chances that you’ll get there. You get what you pay for, so you should pay for what you want to get, or so the argument goes.

Direct payment has been toyed with in several places around the world. One of the most successful is a long-standing project in Costa Rica, which aims to protect the country’s forests by paying local landowners to lay down their chainsaws. In the second half of the 20th century, forest cover in Costa Rica fell from around 50% to 25%. More than half of that which remains is on privately owned land. Since 1996, the government has given individual landowners, associations thereof or indigenous reserves annual payments for conserving forest on their patch. If they don’t, they don’t see the money. So far, more than 10,000 km2 of Costa Rican forest has been protected in this way. In spite of such cases, the idea of rewarding someone for doing precisely nothing is hard to sell.

In the Galápagos, the emphasis is now on community-based conservation – rooting the conservation ethic in the hearts and minds of the local people. In theory, the buoyant ecotourism industry should help. If visitors are prepared to pay local people good money for a wilderness experience, then local people have a good reason to protect the wilderness. Their livelihoods depend on it.

The snag is that money from ecotourism rarely filters down to everyone in a community. Take the Infierno Community Ecotourism Project, for example, a tourist lodge in Peru that undoubtedly brings in money for local people. But a study revealed that only one family, whose adult members were all employed by the lodge, earned enough to sit back on the proceeds of ecotourism. Others in the community profited, but nowhere near enough to live on. Consequently, they had to resort to other money-making activities, many of which undermined the ecotourism operation. Unless the needs of an entire community can be met, it’s unlikely that ecotourism alone will be enough to bring everyone onside.

For 35 years, ecotourism has served the Galápagos community nicely, with small, locally owned boats taking visitors from island to island and their predominantly local owners benefiting directly and reaping the financial rewards. For some time, however, there has been a steady increase in the number of large, foreign-owned vessels, many of which do not really benefit those living in the Galápagos. This trend is captured by the recent arrival of cruise ships in the archipelago. The first to arrive, in March 2006, was a 698-berth ship, the MV Discovery, operated by Discovery World Cruises of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Classic International Cruises, based in Lisbon, Portugal, have their own liner, the Athena, scheduled to visit in 2008.

Many large vessels employ few, if any, local people, bring their supplies with them, disgorge hundreds of tourists onto the same visitor site simulateously and increase risk of introducing alien species to the archipelago. This kind of tourism is simply not sustainable, says Graham Watkins, executive director of the Charles Darwin Foundation. “There has to be a much stronger, much more positive relationship between the tourism private sector and the local community to ensure that local people are fully benefiting,” he says.

Galápagos tourism has had other consequences. As the economic prosperity of the archipelago’s inhabitants has increased, the islands have quickly became one of the most desirable places live and work in Ecuador. Within years, the Galápagos was flush with newcomers whose hearts and minds just weren’t in it. Whilst it had been isolated from the rest of the world, the Galápagos community had remained close-knit. Now, things began to unravel.

The social and cultural change experienced in the Galápagos during the 1990s was massive. In that decade alone, the population doubled from just under 10,000 to nearly 20,000. “If you’re growing things this rapidly, you’re going to get different groups of people that have very different perspectives on what should happen,” says Watkins. “You increase the likelihood of conflicts between people living in Galápagos.”

Nevertheless, out of this conflict rose hope for the long-term future of the islands. It came in the form of a Special Law for the Galápagos, passed by the Ecuadorian Congress in 1998, which acknowledged the pressures facing the Galápagos are different from those on mainland Ecuador. Crucially, the Special Law recognised the need to slow domestic immigration to the islands. There are now only three main ways to qualify for permanent residency: if you are born there; if you lived there for five or more years before the law; or if you are the spouse or child of someone who already has residency.

Ironically, these restrictions may have stimulated a rush to the archipelago as Ecuadorians seized what they saw to be their last chance to move to the Galápagos. In time, however, the population expansion should begin to tail off, reducing the pressure on the islands’ finite resources. The results of the next census generated by the Instituto Nacional Galápagos (INGALA) – the government agency responsible for development in the islands – will be revealing.

The Special Law for Galápagos also offered a route out of the conflict over sea cucumbers and other commercial marine species. The ambiguities over the Galápagos Marine Resources Reserve were cleared up by expanding it to cover an impressive 138,000 km2 of ocean, rebranding it the Galápagos Marine Reserve and setting up a new system for its management.

This saw all the major stakeholders in Galápagos life – the CDRS, PNG, fishermen, tourist industry and natural history guides – around the table for the first time. This ushered in a new era for conservation in the archipelago, one based on rebuilding a sense of community. The future of the Galápagos was, and still is, resting on strong leadership getting these different parties to work together.

“The Special Law was an extraordinary accomplishment,” says CDF executive director Watkins. The focus on collaborative management has helped different sectors begin to understand each other’s perspectives. Nevertheless, the transition from old-style management, where the authorities essentially called the shots based on biological information, to the new collaborative management, where they regularly meet with and meet the needs of other stakeholders in the archipelago, was not going to be easy. “It’s a really different type of work,” says Watkins. “If you’re doing straight old-style conservation biology, you’re dealing with animals,” he says. “They’re not very predictable but they’re a lot more predictable than people.” There is still a long way to go before people get used to the new system of management, he says.

The new management was alsounder pressure to produce instant results. When these did not materialize, old tensions resurfaced. Political instability has not helped. Over the course of the last decade, Ecuador has had a string of different presidents, most of whom did not see out his term of office.

The result has been an inconstant administration. Until last year, frequent changes to the Ministry of the Environment, which used to appoint the head of the PNG, meant that the PNG was in a state of near-constant flux. When, in September 2004, the government appointed the eighth director in just two years, the wardens reluctantly went on strike. Like the fishermen before them, they set up a barricade at the entrance to the PNG offices, this time to prevent the latest incumbent from taking office. Their demands? That the appointment of director should be based on merit rather than politics and fixed for several years to bring much needed stability and leadership to the organization. In May 2006, Raquel Molina became the first transparently appointed director of the PNG.


In spite of the consipcuous dearth of direction over the last decade, the PNG wardens in parternship with CDRS scientists have shown remarkable commitment to their work. And here, I’d like to invite you to back to mist-clad Pinta – Lonesome George’s homeland. For there can be few islands in the Galápagos that better illustrate the industry of those committed to conserving this unique archipelago for future generations.

This trip to will have to be imaginary because Pinta is one of only a handful of the archipelago’s main islands that is completely off-limits to residents and tourists. In spite of this, however, the PNG and CDRS have had an interest in and a sporadic presence on the island for decades. For good reason.

In the 1950s, fishermen released a couple of goats onto the island so they’d have fresh meat on future visits to the rich northern waters of the archipleago. As they’d hoped, the goats bred like billy-o, but the exploding population soon took its toll on the island’s vegetation, opening up up forest and scrub, bringing Scalesia and Opuntia trees close to collapse and triggering widespread soil erosion. Botanist Harold Koopowitz and journalist Hilary Kaye summed up the impact of these mammals in their book on plant extinction. “We cannot discuss the ecology of islands without making a few disparaging comments on goats,” they wrote. “These creatures must be the true embodiement of the devel for a plant lover.”

Soon after Pinta’s goats began their destruction in earnest, the PNG began to send out teams of sharp-shooting wardens. In the 1970s – the decade in which their presence was greatest and the one in which they discovered and recovered Lonesome George – the hunters dispatched an estimated 41,390 goats from this one island, all descended from the two or three introduced a few years earlier.

In an effort to slow the birth rate, the hunters targeted females. Without them, males tend to herd together and these groups of bachelor goats could then be picked off with ease. Whatever the exact number, the rotting goat corpses strewn all over the tiny island suggest that the massacre was massive. In 1985, there was a huge push, but wardens shot only eight animals. These, it was believed, were the last ones. ‘A meticulous search, aided by dogs, allowed us to conclude that all surviving goats had been killed’, boasted that year’s annual report of the CDRS.

One that proved to be premature. Just three years later, five goats were found and six in the year after that. After more hunting and a 30-day visit to the island by a botanist who saw no signs of goat life, the island was declared mammal-free once more: ‘So it seems that on the last trip by PNG and CDRS personnel in February this year, they killed the last animals’, was the bold conclusion of a research station report. Yet again the assessment was too hasty. Five years later, park wardens found and shot another 25 animals.

Eradicating goats requires immense effort and a dose of cunning. The cunning, when it eventually came Pinta’s way, was in the form of the so-called ‘Judas goat’. The idea is this: capitalizing on the animals’ herding instinct, a goat is fitted a radio collar, released and heads off into the inhospitable and inaccessible parts of the island to hook up with other goats. When this Judas goat is located a few months later with the aid of a radio-tracking device, all the animals are shot except for the one with the radiocollar. Every couple of months, the exercise is repeated until the Judas goat is found alone. Then it’s shot and the radiocollar is retrieved. Job done.

It must be pretty disconcerting being a Judas goat. Just when you think you’ve made a new friend, bang! It slumps to the ground. During 1999 and 2000, 28 collared goats roamed Pinta’s mountainside, experiencing the worst kind of Groundhog Day as new acquaintances were dispatched before their eyes time after time. By 2003, these bewildered animals appeared to be the only goats left on Pinta. But how to be certain? The PNG was keen to avoid a repeat of the hasty 1985 and 1990 claims. A methodical search of the island in 2003 by a team of park personnel gave the assurance that was needed.

The eradication of goats from Pinta was a great achievement, but it was just part of a much greater exercise – the Isabela Project. In 1997, CDRS scientists devised an ambitious plan to try to remove goats from the archipelago, including an estimated 100,000 animals from the vast expanse of Isabela, the largest island in the group. With Judas goats, trained dogs, helicopters and a large team of wardens at their disposal, the PNG revealed last summer that Isabela is now a goat-free zone once more.

At last, the tortoises that still live on each of Isabela’s five volcanoes can reclaim their territory. The same would be true for Pinta if there were any tortoises to reclaim it. But with Lonesome George the sole-surviving representative of this reptilian race the island has, for the last 10 years, been without a dominant herbivore. For almost as long, there has been a plan afoot to introduce one, to release a boxful of baby tortoises from another island onto Pinta as proxies for Lonesome George and his long-dead ancestors. These stand-ins should fill a hole in Pinta’s ecological make-up. “In the absence of a dominant herbivore, the structure of the island’s vegetation is changing,” says Ole Hamann, a botanist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark who has worked on Pinta since the 1970s. “Tortoises will open up the vegetation, making room for light-loving herbs and grasses.” They would, in short, restore the islands ecosystem to something of its former glory.

A date for the release was set. At the end of last year, wardens were to put 100 baby Cristóbaln tortoises onto Pinta. “This is the first time that conservationists in the Galápagos have attempted to replace one taxon with another,” anticipated Felipe Cruz, technical director of the Charles Darwin Foundation. As it turned out, the bold initiative never went ahead.

The reason is rather exciting. For more than a decade, an international team of geneticists has been studying the DNA differences between the various types of Galápagos tortoises. Their work has uncovered many secrets, including when and how these improbable colonists reached the archipelago in the first place and the route they subsequently took to reach most of the major islands. They can also take a look at an animal’s DNA and reveal with considerable confidence from which island it came from. It was intriguing then to find that several populations of giant tortoises appear to have animals of mixed ancestry. For Gisella Caccone, professor of genetics at Yale University, the movement of tortoises by bucanneers and whalers is the most likely explanation for these hybrid animals.

And it was studying the most mixed-up of these genetically confused populations – that on Wolf Volcano on Isabela – that Caccone and her colleagues made a strartling discovery: a tortoise with Lonesome George-like genes. For more than 35 years, everyone has assumed that when Lonesome George dies, the Pinta species will go extinct. The finding of second tortoise with Pinta ancestry gives new hope for Lonesome George and his kind. Although this new tortoise is a male, it almost certainly has siblings and quite possibly a sister. The geneticists sampled just 27 tortoises on Wolf, which might support as many as 2000 individuals. A thorough search of Wolf Volcano could well turn up a compatible mate for Lonesome George, allowing the conservation organisations to consider a captive breeding programme for his species. Whilst this is a possibility it would be premature to open the box of baby Española tortoises on Pinta’s craggy slopes.


This is just the latest installment in a story that I’ve no doubt will twist and turn. I have quizzed a handful of people who’ve been lucky enough to set foot on Pinta and I’ve delved into the journals of dozens of pirates and whalers who stopped off there. I’ve been there in my imagination hundreds of times and would love to know if it really is as I picture it.

But much as I’d like to climb its volcano and contemplate, first hand, life on George’s island, I know I can’t. Even if someone offered to sail me past the volcano at a distance, I think I’d decline. Pinta, more than any of the other Galápagos islands, gives me hope that we can contain the influence of humans on the natural history of this archipelago. And its isolation from the world is the only way to keep that hope alive.

This article was first published in the Virginia Quarterly Review (Fall 2007, volume 83 # 4)

On George’s island
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