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This thing called life

The death of Lonesome George, a eulogy that should be in tortoise

Thomas H Fritts/EPA

Lonesome George, a Galapagos Giant tortoise, died a few days ago. He was the last individual of the species Chelonoidis nigra abingdon, or the Pinta Giant Tortoise, so his demise is also an extinction.

George was found alone on Pinta Island, one of the smallest islands of the Galapagos archipelago, in 1972. These large land tortoises were hunted to near extinction in the 19th century, and the introduction of goats hastened their decline.

Both Lonesome George and his species died before their natural lifespans were complete. At 100 years old, George was only middle-aged. Although scientists will attempt to discover the cause of death, he may have died of a broken heart.

After his discovery in the early 1970s, George was transferred to the Charles Darwin Research Station, where every attempt was made to save the species. Researchers offered a $10,000 reward for anyone who found a female Pinta Giant Tortoise to mate with George, without success. They introduced George to females from closely related species.

Female tortoises from Isabela Island (of the species Chelonoidis nigra becki) lived with George for 15 years, and he did attempt to mate with them, but the eggs were inviable. More recently, George was living with two female tortoises from Espanola Island (a more closely related species known as Chelonoidis nigra hoodensis), but I don’t think he even attempted to mate with them. George may have been hampered in the romance department by a lack of social skills due to having grown up all alone. Or maybe, because the offspring would not have been the same species as their father, he did not see the point.

Either way, the species was effectively extinct when it was down to a single individual. We had a similar situation in the 1930s when the last Tasmanian tiger was held in the Hobart Zoo. If you watch the film of the last Tasmanian tiger, you see a restless individual, whose longing for companionship or wilderness is strong. Compare this to a film of George who greets his keeper with a modicum of enthusiasm.

How does a tortoise express its longing? When mastication is an indication of activity and all movements are methodical, our ability to empathise is limited. But Lonesome George was in the Guinness Book of World Records as the loneliest creature on earth.

Lonesome George’s demise leaves me feeling a little lost and sad. After all, it was human activity that decided his fate. It is both sad and creepy when your death is noticed only by the species that caused your extinction.

Even this eulogy feels inadequate, because it should be written in Pinta Giant Tortoise, a language that nobody on earth knows anymore.

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