A lonely Galápagos Giant tortoise died on Sunday and in doing so made world headlines. He was Lonesome George, the last known individual of the species Chelonoidis nigra abingdon, or the Pinta Giant Tortoise. No one else will see another live Pinta Giant Tortoise because with Lonesome George’s death came the extinction of a species.
Lonesome George was found on Pinta Island in 1972 and was transferred to the Charles Darwin Research Station for his protection. This island is one of the smallest of the islands of the Galápagos archipelago. There used to be thousands of each kind of giant tortoises in the Galapagos but they were hunted for meat to near extinction as well as contend with the introduction of pests like goats and rats. Things have not gone well for the giant tortoises of Galápagos.
The definitive isolation of Lonesome George became symbolic of the Galápagos. No other Pinta Giant Tortoises, male or female have ever been found in the wild or in zoos around the world with giant tortoises. Attempts were made to breed him with closely a related sub-species of giant tortoises from around the Wolf Volcano area on the Galápagos island of Isabela. These giant tortoises are the result of interbreeding of different species of giant tortoises dumped on the island by whalers and pirates. Ironically, this careless practice has provided hope that some of the Pinta Giant Tortoise genes have survived. If there is enough genetic material, selective breeding could breed Pinta Giant Tortoises back into existence but there is still work to be done to see whether this is possible.
When I heard of Lonesome George’s death, my thoughts drifted to the plight of the Tasmanian Tiger. It is impossible as an Australian to not hear the story of the Tasmanian Tiger. It was a large carnivorous marsupial and was found throughout Australia. By the time of European settlement in the late 18th century the Tasmanian Tiger was rare or extinct on the mainland but survived on the island state of Tasmania.
Like the giant tortoises of Galápagos, humans caused the demise of the Tasmanian Tiger. Hunting was encouraged to protect livestock was encouraged by bounties as well as disease, the introduction of dogs and loss of habitat all played a role. The last Tasmanian Tiger, a male specimen, died in Hobart Zoo in September 1936. Since then there have been reported sightings in Tasmania and in mainland Australia but none have been verified. It’s as if people are trying to will the Tasmanian Tiger back to life.
Unfortunately no matter how much we may want a species to be part of our world, extinction has a finality about it. Research into cloning of mammoths, Tasmanian Tigers, and many other species is underway. What we need to ask ourselves is whether there room in the world for their return if cloning technology proves successful. After all, the demise of these animals was the product of their environment, something we are all part of.
- ‘Lonesome George’ the last giant Galapagos tortoise of his kind dies (telegraph.co.uk)
- Galapagos tortoise Lonesome George dies (abc.net.au)
- The death of Lonesome George, a eulogy that should be in tortoise (theconversation.edu.au)