Pinta Island’s Lonesome George Passes Away
June 25, 2012

Pinta Island’s Lonesome George Passes Away

Brett Smith for

Sadly, the sudden death of the giant tortoise Lonesome George on the Galapagos Islands this Sunday marks the loss of another subspecies from the face of the Earth.

When scientists first met Lonesome George on Pinta Island in 1972, they had thought his species, Geochelone nigra abingdoni, was already extinct. He was immediately placed into the park service´s tortoise breeding program on Santa Cruz Island and while he did mate with a female tortoise – the eggs she produced were infertile.

Estimated to be around 100 years old, Lonesome George was middle-aged for a tortoise species that can live to be close to 200 years. He was found dead close to his favorite watering hole, said his longtime caretaker, Fausto Llerena, reports BBC News.

While Lonesome George´s death is indeed tragic, his life served as an inspirational rallying cry for those fighting for the survival of the islands´ giant tortoises.

"The plight of Lonesome George provided a catalyst for an extraordinary effort by the government of Ecuador to restore not only tortoise populations throughout the archipelago but also improve the status of other endangered and threatened species," a statement by the Galapagos National Park in Ecuador said, reports the AFP news agency.

Tortoises were quite abundant on the Galapagos islands until the late 19th century. Many were easily hunted for their meat by sailors and fishermen, almost to the point of extinction.

History even counts Charles Darwin as a consumer of tortoise meat, as he documented this in one of his many journals dedicated to the archipelago.

“While staying in this upper region, we lived entirely upon tortoise-meat: the breast-plate roasted (as the Gauchos do carne con cuero), with the flesh on it, is very good; and the young tortoises make excellent soup; but otherwise the meat to my taste is indifferent,” he wrote.

The introduction of goat herds that ravaged island vegetation also put pressure on the gigantic reptiles.

A recovery program started by the Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation in 1974 has increased the overall population from 3,000 to 20,000 today.

To honor the passing of Lonesome George, the park said it was holding an international workshop in July on organizational strategies for restoring tortoise populations over the next ten years.

"Lonesome George's legacy will be an increased effort in both research and management to restore his island of Pinta and all of the other giant tortoise populations of Galapagos," the park said.

Over the years, Lonesome George became a symbol of the Galapagos Islands, which attract around 180,000 visitors a year. The archipelago, which is inhabited by a vast number of endemic species, was made famous by Darwin, who developed his theory of evolution while studying the finches that live on the islands.

In 1978, UNESCO named the Galapagos to the World Heritage List for the rich plant and animal life found both on land and in the surrounding ocean. The list includes 936 properties that the organization has deemed a “part of the cultural and natural heritage” and “having outstanding universal value.”

Recently, the organization has classified the island chain's environment as endangered due to the increase of tourism and the continued introduction of invasive species.