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lonesome george

Welcome home, Lonesome George: giant tortoise returns to Galapagos

Lonesome George is back in Galapagos.

Following the death of the celebrity tortoise in June 2012, his remains were sent to New York to be preserved by expert taxidermists. With the support of the Galapagos Conservancy, the last Pinta tortoise was the star of a highly successful exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in 2014. Today, he flies back to the Galapagos Archipelago after almost five years on his whirlwind taxidermy tour.

When I first met Lonesome George in Galapagos in 2003, I was underwhelmed. He was eating quietly. I took some photos. I moved on. I saw him again the week after his death, this time bubble-wrapped and duct-taped in a freezer in an outbuilding on the outskirts of Puerto Ayora. In between these encounters, George acted as the muse for a book I wrote about tortoises, Galapagos and global conservation (it’s called Lonesome George). I became more respectful of his incredible power to communicate the conservation message. This tortoise embodies extinction, quite literally, and people all round the world have been moved by his life, his death and now his afterlife.

“Lonesome George must remain in the archipelago, at the research station on Santa Cruz. By then, this is where he will have spent most of his life; this is the place that Lonesome George would call home. Even in death, it is here that he will have his greatest audience.”

I’m delighted that this is what has happened. The Galapagos National Park will celebrate George’s homecoming by opening “La Ruta de la Tortuga” in a special building at the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center on Santa Cruz. The taxidermy will act as “a symbol of hope” in a climate-controlled space at the centre of the exhibition. Visitors to Galapagos will be able to learn all about his sad, but moving story.

The potted version goes something like this:

Whalers and sailors, even the occasional naturalist (yes Charles Darwin) loved to eat giant tortoises. After months at sea chewing on salty beef and rusks, the easy-to-catch reptiles and their delicious oily meat made them a target. In the space of a few hundred years, the tortoise population in Galapagos collapsed from hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, to just a few thousand individuals and it caused their complete disappearance from several islands. For most of the 20thcentury, it was assumed that Pinta was one of these.

Then in 1971, a snail biologist was working alone on Pinta when he saw a tortoise. The following year, the Galapagos National Park captured the animal – who became known as Lonesome George – and moved him to a paddock on Santa Cruz. They hoped to find a mate for him, but none materialized and George lived for the next 40 years in captivity, celibate and stubbornly disinterested in having sex with females from other islands. His fame grew. Geneticists figured out there are still Pinta-like tortoises on another island. But before they could be located and presented to Lonesome George, he died. I covered his passing for the BBC. He went to New York for a taxidermic overhaul. Now he’s back

lonesome george
Lonesome George was discovered on the Galapagos islands in 1971 and was the last of his subspecies. (© Christina Horsten/dpa/Corbis)


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