I first met Lonesome George on a holiday to Galapagos in 2003. When I next saw him, exactly ten years ago in 2012, he was dead and stowed in a freezer.
If you have not heard of Lonesome George, where have you been? Lonesome George was the sole-surviving giant tortoise from the northerly island of Pinta, discovered there against all odds in 1971 and brought into captivity at the Charles Darwin Research Station on the central island of Santa Cruz in 1972. In the decades that followed, he became something of a celebrity, a poster-boy for the conservation movement in Galapagos and beyond. The information panel to his enclosure carried these words: “Whatever happens to this single animal, let him always remind us that the fate of all living things on Earth is in human hands.”
About a year after I first met George, I decided to write a book about him, one that would tell his poignant story, using it to ripple out to giant tortoises, the Galapagos and global conservation. “There’s no reason why Lonesome George should not outlive us all, acting as a focus for Galapagos conservation for generations to come,” I wrote in its closing pages. After so many decades in captivity, George had become such a fixture in Galapagos that few people stopped to think that one day his life would come to an end. So it came as a surprise to everyone when, early in the morning of 24 June 2012, park warden Fausto Llerena found him dead in his enclosure. Llerena had watched George leave Pinta for Santa Cruz in 1972 and over the next 40 years had become his go-to carer and something of a tortoise whisperer. Of all the tortoises in captivity, “he was my best friend,” he said.
I flew out from the UK to Galapagos to report on the mood in the Islands and arrived a day after Lonesome George’s funeral, a sombre ceremony held on the decking above his empty corral at which park wardens, naturalist guides and a few scientists mourned his passing and paused to reflect.
Over in Quito, Ecuador’s then-President Rafael Correa spoke of Lonesome George in an address to the nation, expressing hope that “one day, science and technology will be able to reproduce him, to clone him.” Cruz had had the presence of mind to preserve some cells from George shortly after death for research purposes, though if they are viable they could conceivably be used for a cloning attempt some time in the future. I saw these too, or at least the flask that contained them, a regular thermos nestled at -50°C beside George’s frozen carcass.
By some strange twist of fate, Lonesome George gave up the tortoise ghost just days before the first ever international symposium on Galapagos tortoises. All the human giants of the giant tortoise world had convened in Puerto Ayora to discuss the status of each of the surviving species of Galapagos tortoises and put in place further plans for their protection.
Linda Cayot, the science advisor to the Galapagos Conservancy in the US, was the chair of that meeting. Cayot has dedicated her life to the conservation of Galapagos tortoises and she dedicated the meeting to the memory of Lonesome George. “There was this great sadness of losing a tortoise, and a population and a species,” she told me the time. “But there was also this strong determination that this should never, ever happen again in Galapagos…. We cannot lose more species here.”
“We are working not just for species protection and restoration but for ecosystem restoration,” said Cayot. “The more we work to improve the actual habitats and the environment out there and bring them back to something closer to the way they were before humans came, the safer it is for all of the native species.”
In the weeks after George’s death, there was talk of sending him on a postmortem trip to a taxidermist. I knew this was the right thing to do, that he could have an afterlife in which he would still be able to communicate the conservation message to the world. “His remains should not be taken back to his native island,” I wrote in my book. “Nor should they be flown to Quito to act as a centrepiece in the Museo Ecuatoriano de Ciencias Naturales. Lonesome George must remain in the archipelago, at the research station on Santa Cruz,” I argued. “Even in death, it is here that he will have his greatest audience.”
This is exactly what came to pass. With funding from the Galapagos Conservancy and the completion of a lot of paperwork, George left Galapagos for the US in 2013 and after two years of painstaking preparation his spectacular taxidermy was unveiled to the public in a special exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In 2017, after an absence of almost five years, George returned to Galapagos, where he is now housed in a special climate-controlled building at the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center on Santa Cruz and fronts “La Ruta de la Tortuga”, a tourist trail that communicates the evolution and conservation of the giant tortoises.
There have been other symbolic tortoises in Galapagos. On Pinzon, there was Onan, a majestic male that came to symbolise the successful recovery of his species from the 1960s onwards. He was a favourite with the researchers who would visit, approaching them with his mouth wide open and his head held as high as possible. When Washington Tapia of the Galapagos National Park found him dead on his island in the 1990s, he took his machete and cut a grave in which to bury his remains.
Then there was Diego, a giant tortoise that had been removed from Espanola in the 1930s and taken to San Diego Zoo, before being returned to Galapagos in the 1970s to play a crucial part in a captive breeding programme. Over the next 40 years, the number of giant tortoises on Espanola rose from 0 to over 2000, many of them fathered by Diego. The programme was such a success that in 2020, the Galapagos National Park shipped Diego and the other 14 breeding tortoises from Santa Cruz to Espanola and released them back on their native island, in Diego’s case after an absence of 86 years.
In 2019, park rangers on Fernandina Island found a single female tortoise. Fernanda, as she is now known, is in captivity on Santa Cruz, in the hope that further Fernandina tortoises may yet be discovered.
All of these other tortoise celebrities are important and all of them have played ambassadorial roles by raising awareness of the plight of their species and Galapagos more widely. But (like a tortoise) I’m going to stick my neck out here. There will never be another giant tortoise that will capture human hearts and minds quite like Lonesome George did in life and continues to do in death.
This feature was published in the Autumn/Winter 2022 edition of Galapagos Matters, the Galapagos Conservation Trust’s members’ magazine.