/ 28 June 2012

George never came out of his shell

End of the line: Lonesome George was an icon of global wildlife and the last known survivor of his subspecies.
End of the line: Lonesome George was an icon of global wildlife and the last known survivor of his subspecies.

He was on Ecuador’s banknotes and stamps, an evolutionary remnant, a money-spinning tourist attraction and an icon of international conservation. No one knew whether he was gay, impotent, terminally bored or just very shy. He is thought to have been about 100 years old and in the prime of life when he died on Sunday at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos – but the giant ­tortoise known as Lonesome George and commonly called the “rarest animal on Earth” could, in fact, have been far older – or younger.

In the 40-odd years that he spent in a field on Santa Cruz Island, having been relocated from Pinto Island in 1972, the 90kg, 150cm-long animal showed little interest in either people or other tortoises. He mostly ignored the female company provided to encourage him to breed, kept his 90cm-long scraggy neck down in the long grass and only responded to his long-time keeper, Fausto Llerena, who runs a tortoise breeding centre.

“The park ranger in charge of looking after the tortoises found Lonesome George; his body was motionless,” said Edwin Naula, head of the Galapagos National Park.

No one knows how or why George died and scientists are still baffled by his life in the volcanic Pacific islands that inspired Darwin’s theories on evolution and are now a global laboratory for conservation.

But history shows that the last known representative of the giant Galapagos tortoise subspecies Chelonoidis nigra abingdonis had every reason to shun humanity. His closest relatives had been systematically exterminated for food or oil by passing whalers and seal hunters in the 19th century and his habitat on Pinto Island had then been devastated by introduced feral goats. George possibly has relations on neighbouring Isabela Island, but it is more likely his whole subspecies is now extinct – the end of what is probably a 10-million-year-old line.

Last of his kind
Earlier this week scientists who had spent time with George recalled his peculiar ways. “George was the last of his kind,” said Joe Flanagan, the head vet of the Houston Zoo in the United States, who knew George for more than 20 years. “He had a unique personality. His natural tendency was to avoid people. He was very evasive. He had his favourites and his routines, but he really only came close to his keeper Llerena. He represents what we wanted to preserve forever. When he looked at you, you saw time in the eyes.”

Scientists’ attempts to get him to mate with other giant tortoises from the Galapagos Islands all failed and were often comical.

Artificial insemination did not work and neither did a $10000 reward offered by the Ecuadorean government for a suitable mate. In the 1990s Sveva Grigioni, a Swiss ­zoology graduate student, smeared ­herself with female tortoise hormones and, in the cause of science, spent four months trying to stimulate him manually— to no avail.

Breeding success was thought to be close in 2008 and in 2009, when George unexpectedly mated with one of two female companions he was living with. But although two clutches of eggs were collected and then incubated, they all failed to hatch.

Celibate tortoise
However, Henry Nicholls, author of Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of the World’s Most Famous Tortoise, reported that he was irresistibly attracted to the late Lord Devon’s wartime helmet, presumably because it resembled the shell of a young tortoise. Even after being put on a diet, the celibate tortoise with the scraggy neck, who could have been expected to live until he was well over 200, remained obstinately alone.

Conservation scientists this week said George was important because he symbolised both the rapid loss of biodiversity now taking place around the world and provided the inspiration to begin restoring it in places like the Galapagos islands.

In 1960, 11 of the Galapagos Islands’ original 14 populations of tortoises remained and most were on the point of extinction. Today, about 20 000 giant tortoises of ­different subspecies inhabit the islands and most of the wild goats have been eradicated.

But George will be sorely missed for financial reasons, too. As the star of the islands and an icon of global wildlife, he helped to attract 180 000 money-spinning visitors a year to the archipelago, 1 000km off the Ecuadorean coast.

Now, says the national park, he is likely to become a conservation relic and will probably be embalmed and displayed – alone until the end. – © Guardian News & Media 2012