Life is hard for Lonesome George. As the last of the
Abingdon Island subspecies of Galápagos tortoise (Geochelone nigra abingdoni), Lonesome George is the world's rarest creature.
Of course, Lonesome George has humans to thank for this genocide.
Sharing the once perceived destiny of all Galápagos tortoises, many of
his kin were served as meals for busy sailors and pirates-on-the-go.
Then, in the 1950's, feral goats were introduced into the
Abingdon Island ecosystem. "Those goddamn goats," Lonesome George would
likely say. And so the tortoise population rapidly went to shit with
goats eating away the island's vegetation. It wasn't until 1971,
during a routine hunt for those same goats, that Lonesome George was
discovered, obviously alone.
Now the sixty-to-ninety-year-old tortoise lives at the Charles
Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island. In 1992, Lonesome
George began to share his corral with two female Volcán Wolf Tortoises, chosen for their subspecies's close
physical similiarity. And, after all, what could be more appealing to a
young, sexually mature tortoise than a naughty, little Ménage à trois tortues? Lonesome George, however, was not impressed.
So efforts were made to entice Lonesome George, in hopes that he
might still be the savior of his species. What Lonesome George needed
to do was man-up and do the right thing. Maybe, the researchers
thought, he just doesn't know how to do it. Maybe he's lived
his whole sad life alone. What Lonesome George needed was an education
on the subject of tortoise love. To this end, his keepers arranged for
him to watch as younger tortoise males mated. "Do you see, L.G.?" his
keepers seemed to be saying. "Do you see what we're asking you to do?"
Yet still Lonesome George sat like a dumpy blob. Rumours spread that
Lonesome George was a homosexual.
Researchers considered artificial insemination. First, however, a
human needed to become intimate enough with Lonesome George, whose
reputation was somewhat that of an asshole, and who typically bit
nearby people or tortoises. Sveva Grigioni, a Swiss zoology
graduate and park volunteer, took on the job. Because Sveva had
proven herself to be rather adept at ejaculating male
tortoises, sometimes even within fifteen minutes of meeting them,
Lonesome George's elusive seed appeared in reach. But despite earning
the title of Lonesome George's girlfriend, Sveva was unable to coax a
sperm sample from her aloof beau, and when her visa expired four
months after her arrival, she was made to return to Switzerland empty
In desperation, the Darwin Station offered a reward, $10,000 to the
person who could find the ideal mate for Lonesome George. Many female
tortoises were presented, but Lonesome George could not be seduced, and
his celibacy was maintained.
Lonesome George's apathy astounded, and while the
movement was busy framing his wrinkled puss as the symbol of hope for a
renewable world, Lonesome George sat idly by. However, his status as a
symbol did not, and, in 1995, the simple tortoise found himself the
centre of violent politics between local fishermen and
conservationists. The real debate was over the unstainable harvesting
of native sea cucumbers, a subject that Lonesome George
clearly did not give a damn about. Nevertheless, when the
conservationists pushed for a quota on sea cucumber fishing, a gang
of fishermen armed with machetes stormed the Darwin Centre.
For four days they held researchers, keepers and tortoises hostage.
And, they threatened to kill Lonesome George, holding a blade to the
unwilling mascot's neck, as if it were the neck of the entire
conservationist movement, until their opposition relented to their
demands. Lonesome George was unharmed; the sea cucumbers were
eventually fished into near extinction.
As the danger subsided, the tempo of Lonesome George's life slowed
down again to a pace more befitting a large, asexual tortoise.
Scientists, frustrated that he wouldn't mate, more frustrated that they
couldn't clone him, were beginning to look elsewhere for the
salvation of the Abingdon Island Tortoise. In early 2007, a team of
researchers believed they'd found that salvation on the neighbouring
island of Isabela, where they'd discovered an
Isabela/Abingdon hybrid tortoise. DNA analysis confirmed the
tortoise's parents: a Volcán Wolf Tortoise mother and an Abingdon
Island Tortoise father. Some scientists pointed out that Lonesome
George might have trouble mating with this newly discovered hybrid, it
being male and all. Still other, more cynical minds took this as proof
positive that the two subspecies could interbreed, and Lonesome
George was really just fucking with everyone.
Then, suddenly, the courtship was over; Lonesome George made it
with both his girlfriends. Tortoise eggs had been discovered inside a
nest. The world was astonished. It seems Lonesome George wasn't an
asshole; he was a gentleman, and at sixty-to-ninety-years-old, he had
hit his sexual prime. But three months after Lonesome George had
taken his rightful place as patriarch of his subspecies, disaster
struck the island of Santa Cruz. Scientists announced that 80% of the
eggs showed signs of infertility.
Now, while his keepers pray for a miracle, the pragmatic are
considering what to do next. Some geneticists, citing
DNA research on Galápagos tortoise subspecies, suggest that a Hood
Island Tortoise would be a more suitable mate for Lonesome George; the
Abingdon Island Tortoise shares more genetic similarities with the Hood
Island Tortoise, than it does with the Volcán Wolf Tortoise. At
present, the Darwin Centre is refusing this option, claiming that it
runs counter to their ethical obligation to allow the natural,
biological processes within the Galápagos islands to develop without
human intervention. As it turns out, this too is met with
complications as it runs counter to literally every other goddamn thing
in Lonesome George's life.
The goats that once usurped Abingdon Island are gone,
eradicated as an effort by the Galápagos National Park to
restore balance to its ecosystem. However, without a tortoise
population, the ecosystem is without a native herbivore to curtail
the vegetative growth. By birthright, it is Lonesome George's island and
his burden to bear. And while he has many years still
to father young heirs to his genetic dynasty, the issue is whether or not he will do it in time to reclaim the land of his
forefathers, and to undo his forced abdication. Life is hard
for Lonesome George.
conservation: One of a kind" by Henry Nicholls, Nature (June 3rd, 2004)
Plight of Lonesome George" The Naked Scientists (March 2006)
"Relative found for Lonesome George" by Helen Pilcher, BioEd Online (April 30th, 2007)
tortoise George may not be last of his kind" ABC News (May 1st,
- "Lonesome George about to become a father after 36 year wait" Wildlife Extra
Hopes of Offspring from Lonesome" Charles Darwin Foundation (November
bachelor tortoise struggles to be a dad" CBC News, Reuters (November 11th, 2008)
- "Geochelone nigra abingdoni" Wikipedia
Darwin Research Station Fact Sheet: Pinta giant tortoise" Charles Darwin Foundation