IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PACIFIC, the black, volcanic ruins of Pinta Island were once dotted by thousands of “living rocks,” Galápagos tortoises chomping prickly cacti, hatching their babies, slowly chasing the equatorial sun. But the island was stripped bare over the 19th century, as hungry whalers discovered that they could be stored as fresh meat for a year without food or water in their ships’ holds. By 1906 the last three documented Pinta tortoises were captured and preserved in arsenic by Stanford’s California Academy of Sciences.
However, one particularly shy tortoise had escaped their survey and would go on to survive, unnoticed, for the next seventy years—a young age for a creature who might grow for nearly two centuries. It wasn’t until 1971 that he first encountered a human, an unsuspecting snail scientist, who soon realized what he’d stumbled upon. This was an endling, the very last of his species.
They named him El Solitario Jorge: Lonesome George.
Left: Lonesome George (Creative Commons) | Right: (Michael Zysman)
To protect him from poachers, a Galápagos National Park team carried his 165-pound frame across Pinta’s jagged rocks, placed him into a small boat, and sailed him to a breeding center on Santa Cruz Island. Plans were quickly made to stud him with other tortoise species to reverse the imminent extinction of his genetic line. Two good-looking females were moved into his enclosure from nearby Wolf Volcano, but Lonesome George maintained a platonic distance. “He didn’t much care for other tortoises,” recalled Craig MacFarland, former director of the Charles Darwin Research Station. Zoos and cloning geneticists were consulted. Personal ads popped up in newspapers around the world: “Searching for a female Galapagos tortoise, Pinta Island…” A research intern named Sveva Grigioni took on the project of fondling him for three months, two hours at a time, in hopes of producing semen. Nothing. Two females with more similar genes were located and switched out with his spurned corralmates, but he ignored them too. For a time, he was bunked with other males in the hopes that observing their exploits might get him going, but he simply claimed a corner of the enclosure for himself and dug in. ”The other tortoises stayed away and let him be,” said Linda Caycot, former science advisor for the Galápagos Conservancy. “He lives up to his name.”
Through the years of will-he-won’t-he hubbub, Lonesome George’s caretaker, a park ranger named Fausto Llerena, rode his bike to visit him every day. Each morning, George met Fausto at the gate with his neck outstretched. “He had a complex personality,” said Fausto. “It was as if he would say, ‘What’s on the menu today?’ and I would reply, ‘Well, it’s the same menu as every day.’” George would stay with the ranger for hours while he completed his work, and afterward slowly walk Fausto to the gate to say goodbye. He never did the same with anyone else. “They just liked to be together, to sit together,” recalled James Gibbs of the Galápagos Conservancy (whom George intensely disliked because he often drew his blood). “I think Fausto understood things that no one else did about George.”
“I think Fausto understood things that no one else did about George.”
What passes between two beings in the comfortable silences of a forty-year friendship? What trust is built, slowly but surely, on tortoise time and tender kindnesses?
One Sunday morning in June 2012, George failed to meet his friend at the gate. He had died unexpectedly in the night at over one hundred years old. With his death, Earth’s line of Pinta Island tortoises went extinct.
News broke and the world reeled with the finality and failure of it all: “Death of the world’s rarest creature.” “Farewell to Lonesome George, who never came out of his shell.” “Lonesome George, last of his kind, dies.”
But to Fausto the tragedy was much simpler. “He was my best friend,” he said.
Lonesome George (Creative Commons)
Beloved endlings, like Lonesome George, focus painstaking human devotion to a single point: Najin the northern white rhino lives protected under armed guard; Laña the Pyrenean Ibex was resurrected as a short-lived clone; Turgi the Polynesian tree snail’s passing was marked with international obituaries and a gravestone. Yet right now there are only fifty-one Rice’s whales in the Gulf of Mexico. Three hundred and seventy black-footed ferrets in the west’s endangered grasslands. And over 1 million other species at risk of extinction. Can we care for the individuals of the herd—the pod, the kaleidoscope, the flock—as much as the endling? Their survival depends upon extending the same intensity of devotion to those who precede their own Lonesome George.