Lonesome George was a celebrity tortoise. Millions of humans made the pilgrimage to see him while he lived, and his death was international news.
He wasn’t particularly large for a Galapagos giant tortoise — just 5 feet long with his neck stretched out, and only 200 pounds. He wasn’t particularly old either — about a century by some estimates — still in tortoise middle age.
But Lonesome George was the “rarest animal on earth” — the last of his kind. When George died an entire subspecies went extinct.
Some quick background: Every island in Ecuador’s Galapagos archipelago has a genetically distinct population of tortoises. These tortoises first amused and then intrigued 26-year-old Charles Darwin when he visited the islands in 1835.
But ground-breaking naturalists weren’t the only visitors to the Galapagos in those days. Sailors, whalers and buccaneers, seeking their fortune in the eastern Pacific, killed tortoises for meat and oil. They left goats on the islands (to jump start a future meat supply), and those goats gobbled up the tortoises’ food. By the early 20th century, Pinta Island tortoises were presumed extinct.
Then in 1971: shocking news. A tortoise had been seen on Pinta Island. Scientists found him, named him Lonesome George, and took him to a nearby research station on Santa Cruz Island to keep him safe. They searched for a female Pinta Island tortoise — a partner to mate with George so their genes could survive. Desperate, the researchers offered up a $10,000 reward. But no mate was found.
As a last resort, they tried to breed George with females of a closely related subspecies. But alas, the eggs from those pairings failed to hatch.
I remember where I was when I learned that Lonesome George had died. It was late June in 2012, and I was at the airport waiting for a flight. I started writing this song on the plane.
George was soon airborne, too. His body was shipped to the United States, where an expert taxidermist painstakingly preserved his hide and shell. I went to see the final product — a lifelike George, with his impressive neck stretched its full length — in a display case at the American Museum of Natural History, where he was called “The Face of Extinction.”
Last week, that exhibit was packed away; Lonesome George will soon begin the journey back to the Galapagos. The plan is to put him on display on Santa Cruz Island, where millions more can visit him and learn his story.