Lonesome George

Lonesome George (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lonesome_George) was the most famous reptile in the world. He is believed to have been the last surviving giant tortoise from the northernmost island of Pinta in the Galápagos archipelago. It had been thought that the last tortoise there was carried away by scientists in 1906. In the previous two centuries, passing sailors had plundered the tortoises to use as food on their long voyages. They are, by all accounts, very tasty. Even Charles Darwin thought nothing of tucking into these succulent specimens during his visit to the islands in 1835.

Lonesome George is, writes Henry Nicholls (http://henrynicholls.com/ and http://thewayofthepanda.blogspot.co.uk/p/about-henry-nicholls.html), ‘a symbol of the devastation man has wrought to the natural world’. Discovered on Pinta by accident in 1971, all 90kg of George was relocated to the safety of the Charles Darwin Research Station on the main Galápagos island, Santa Cruz. Hunting and the introduction of hostile species by passing ships – black rats, goats and pigs – had threatened these ancient and regal beasts with extinction. Lonesome George’s subspecies, Geochelone nigra abingdoni (the English name for Pinta was the Earl of Abingdon’s Island), is now officially extinct in the wild, according to the World Conservation Union. Of the 14 different types of Galápagos tortoise, three are now extinct. Sea turtle expert Peter Pritchard rushed to Pinta after Lonesome George was discovered to search for any remaining tortoises. All he found was one recently butchered animal. ‘The utter senselessness of it almost reduced me to tears’, says Pritchard.

In Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon (2006) Nicholls tells the story of this last tragic chelonoidis nigra. It is the story of ‘a creature that touches all who see and hear about him, an animal whose plight embodies the practical, philosophical and ethical challenges of preserving our fragile planet’. Like Elsa the lion or Ling-Ling the panda, Lonesome George has become the ‘poster boy’ of worldwide conservation. Galápagos is now the ‘world’s premier ecotourism destination’, with 100,000 visitors a year – far more than is sustainable for this fragile ecosystem. Lonesome George has become so closely identified with the conservation cause that in 1995, when local fishermen rioted against restrictions placed on sea cucumber fishing for environmental reasons, they blockaded the research station chanting “¡Muerte al Solitario Jorge!” (Death to Lonesome George). In order to prevent Lonesome George’s genes dying out, the Charles Darwin Foundation put up a $10,000 reward for any zoo that could offer him a female Pinta tortoise. The research station tried repeatedly to mate George with tortoises from another island, but without success. The research station even employed Sveva Grigioni, a ‘beautiful’ 26-year-old Swiss zoology graduate, to spend four months trying to ‘rouse the fire in Lonesome George’s loins’. The job involved coating her hands with the ‘genital secretions’ of female tortoises and engaging in ‘manual stimulation’ of George. According to Nicholls, such ‘genital massage’ in the cause of conservation is common. Locating a tortoise’s ‘intromittent organ’ is said to be a highly skilled, indeed delicate, operation. During his admirably thorough research into George’s love life, Nicholls found a brave zoologist who has perfected a technique for collecting ‘an ejaculate from a bull elephant by hand’. It involves the manual stimulation of ‘a captive male’s internal glands by way of its rectum’. Grigioni’s ministrations did indeed succeed in awakening George’s interest in female tortoises – ‘he started to try copulation but it was like he didn’t really know how’, she tells Nicholls poignantly.

The Galápagos Islands’ most famous tortoise has become what is known in the conservation business as a ‘flagship’ (sub)species. Quite how long giant tortoises live no one knows. Nicholls’s biography of the last Pinta tortoise is told with real affection and humour. It encompasses the politics of conservation, the science and history of evolution, and some details of reptilian reproduction that a less brave writer might well have chosen to elide. It is a fitting tribute to one of the voiceless victims of human progress.

240 pages in pan paperback edition

ISBN 978-0330450119

Henry Nicholls                                Lonesome George
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