Lonesome George was a giant tortoise, the last of his species, and he died this week, on Sunday (24 June). I wrote about his death and made everyone sad in a recent post.
George was found living alone on a tiny rocky island called Pinta. He had been there a long time, presumably alone for most of his life – he was 60 years old. His species had been hunted by humans a hundred years before he was born, but the death knell came when goats were introduced to Pinta Island. Goats can eat hundreds of times faster than tortoises. The goats quickly removed the native vegetation, so there wasn’t even enough for thrifty and slow-munching reptiles.
I want to thank Fausto Llarena, who was Lonseome George’s keeper for 40 years, on behalf of my species. He showed compassion and companionship to this animal who was the last of his species. We may have caused the decline of his kind, but at least one of us treated him with kindness.
It means a lot to me, and to all of us, that we have this ability to care for other species. But there seems to be a limit to our generosity. While we can be keenly aware of our impact on one animal in an enclosure on the other side of the world, it is harder to see the daily impact we have on animals in our own neighbourhood.
The best response to our feelings about exotic animals going extinct, is to see what we can do for our local native creatures. We can open our eyes to the various ways in which our behaviour might harm the species with whom we share our environment. We rarely hunt things to extinction on land anymore (we are still hard at it in the oceans, unfortunately), but we do release a lot of metaphorical goats.
Livestock of all kinds encroach on native habitat. Growing crops uses land that could support native fauna. All introduced plants and animals are like the goats released on the island of Pinta - they exclude the species that were originally here.
Each spot on our planet has its own complement of native species, and too often the people who recognise how special they are live on the other side of the planet. We have a tendency to take for granted the creatures we grow up with. I thought squirrels and salamanders were boring until I moved to Australia, where we have neither. I thought kangaroos and possums were exciting until I moved to the country where they are practically pests.
The trick is to nurture the special creatures that live in their own backyards, even when they annoy us. There are so many simple things we can do, like planting trees or putting aside land to make space for local creatures.
Doing this will foster in each of us a sense of place, a spirit of peace, and a deep connection to this thing called life. For better or worse, we are all part of it.