Lessons learnt from Lonesome George

A few days ago, we received the sad news from the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands that Lonesome George has passed away.

It appears the last act of the sole survivor of Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni, (a subspecies of giant land tortoise) was to trend on twitter; a feat certainly unique in the tortoise world, and most likely never to be repeated again.

It was a testament to George, who died at about 100 years old that not only the conservation world, but the wider public acknowledged his passing. To many he was the symbol of conservation. To others a relic of evolutionary history. For it was Giant tortoises like George that inspired the young Darwin on his travels to the Galapagos. Each sub-species adapted to different niches within each island – the fingerprint of an adaptive radiation in response to natural selection.

Scientists back in the 1970’s thought that the Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni lineage was already long gone. They were surprised when they found George wandering on the small island of Pinta alone (hence the name). In the decades since, they’ve tried, in vain, to find a female of the same subspecies for him. Their efforts, it probably goes without saying, were unsuccessful. Still, they tried to continue George’s ancestral line, even if they couldn’t guarantee his subspecies. They penned him with two females from a closely related sub species, genetically similar enough they hoped, and waited to see what might happen. They celebrated when eggs were produced, but alas, none of them hatched. George, it seemed, was destined to remain the rarest creature on the planet, despite the Research Station’s best efforts.

Most probably George’s ancestors were wiped out by European colonisers for their meat. Unfortunately the trend continues, and many of the world’s tortoises are in trouble:

– Ploughshare tortoises have their shells defaced to make them worthless on the black market. There are only a few hundred left in the wild and they are critically endangered.

– Poachers known as “the tortoise mafia” and locals who eat tortoise meat threaten Madagascar’s rare tortoises, which include the Ploughshare, Spider, Radiated and Flat-tailed species.

– Burmese starred tortoises are also listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. They get their name from the striking yellow and dark brown star pattern on their shells.

Lonesome George became part of the Galapagos National Park breeding programme, and despite the failure to produce fertile offspring, his genes will be preserved. Artificial fertilisation may yet provide a route to maintain his unique gene pool.

A fellow student of mine, Olivia Green, recently visited George and all the Galapagos islands. She discovered that although there is a heavy tourist influence, the place is not trashed. In fact some 20,000 giant tortoises of other subspecies still live on the Galapagos. Perhaps the haven which inspired Darwin can now also inspire us as a model of conservation in the modern world – treading the fine line between publicity, tourism, and the maintenance of a pristine environment along with its inhabitants.

A comment on the BBC News article reads “Species going extinct is part of the evolutionary process including those affected by other species including man…we are just part of the planets eco system” If anyone reading this does not feel saddened by this view, then I feel sadden for you.

We are not passive entities in the processes driving extinctions on our planet. We as a species cause the destruction, but we can also prevent it. But the lesson I think we can learn from Lonesome George is that extinction is also fickle. Despite the best efforts of the world’s leading conservation experts and the universal appreciation of his plight, the figurehead of conservation could not be saved. This does not mean that conservation is doomed, but it is an eye opener and reminds us that public awareness about endangered species does not equal saving them.

Conservation must shift its position from a charity case to an economic necessity. Post cards from the Galapagos in return for a donation may make us feel good inside, but in reality, as proved by George, the charitable approach to conservation is not sustainable.

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About theNatSci

Cambridge Natural Scientist.
This entry was posted in Conservation, Environment, Science and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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