Goodbye Lonesome George

Lonesome George

The last known Pinta Island tortoise, Lonesome George, died yesterday (24th June 2012, local time in Ecuador) of unknown causes.

The event marks the total extinction of this Giant Tortoise subspecies, Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni, also known as the Pinta Island Tortoise or Abingdon Island Tortoise.

World’s Rarest Animal

Lonesome George long held the record for World’s Most Endangered Animal and another for being the Rarest Reptile.  He was discovered in 1971 and subsequently placed under protection at the Charles Darwin Research Station.

Scientists had been trying to get George to mate since 1993, when they introduced two female tortoises of a different subspecies into his pen.  They laid eggs twice, but they were infertile.  George didn’t make a great dad, it seems.

The Pinta tortoise was pronounced functionally extinct because George was in captivity and breeding was unsuccessful.

He was a major icon of conservation efforts and the Galapagos Islands.

Last of his Kind

There are still around 20,000 giant tortoises living on the Galapagos Islands.  But of the twelve subspecies, four are extinct or extinct in the wild; one is critically endangered; four are endangered; and four are of vulnerable conservation status.  This sad state is due to hunting for their meat by sailors and fishermen, and the reduction of habitat – eaten away by goats introduced from the mainland.  Conservation efforts have reduced the number of goats so that habitat can return, tourism brings in much-needed money, education and awareness in the community are helping the government manage the Islands more sustainably… But sadly for George and his subspecies, it was just too late.

Old Age?

Lonesome George was believed to be over 100 years old when he died.  Edwin Naula, Director of the Galapagos National Park, has said he suspects George to have died from natural causes due to his age.  After a necropsy to confirm this, the Park is also considering embalming George’s body for display.  So don’t worry if you didn’t get to see him yet – the last Abingdon Island Tortoise may still be around for years to come.

One hundred years may may sound old to you… but Giant Tortoises are thought to live for up to 200 years, and George had a long way to go before he could break any more records.  The Aldabran giant tortoise Adwaita may have been 255 years old upon his death in 2006.  Tu’i Malila was given to the Tongan Royal family by Captain James Cook in 1777, and was believed to be 188 years old upon his death by natural causes in 1965.  The third oldest tortoise ever authenticated was Harriet, a Galapagos giant tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra porteri – Indefatigable Island Tortoise).  Harriet was thought to have originally been brought from the Galapagos Islands by Charles Darwin himself.  She died in 2006 in Australia, aged 176.

So perhaps Lonesome George could have lived a few more years.  That seems to make his passing even more sad, to me.

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