The Last of His Kind: The Lamented Life of Lonesome George

lonesome george last of his kind photo

Photo by Lena Tashjian

Lonesome George slovenly lumbers out of the brush in his compound, painstakingly climbs the minor incline up to his pool, and collapses. The famed giant tortoise seems exhausted and lethargic, even by tortoise standards. And I can't blame him—if I were 100 years old, the very last male of my species left in existence, and had little hope of fathering children, I'd probably have trouble getting out of bed in the morning too.Fishermen and pirates hunted the Pinta Island Tortoise to what was believed to be extinction—until they found George. He was rescued from his small native Galapagos island of Pinta in 1972, and quickly recognized to be the only remaining one of his kind. Two females of a closely related species were found on the nearby island of Isabella, and for decades scientists have been trying to get him to mate to no avail. Over the years, his fame grew, and he picked up his renowned nickname.

There was a flurry of excitement last summer, when naturalists found fertilized eggs in George's compound for the first time. Unfortunately, the entire crop was spoiled by natural causes—a frequent occurrence in the wild—and the exciting turn of events ended in disappointment.

Now, sitting on the observation deck to his compound at the Charles Darwin Research Center, I can't help but project a sense of sadness—and a bit of hope—onto the solitary George as he cranes his massive neck and seems to stare directly at me. I've been sitting and staring at George long after the rest of the group left with one other teacher.

Lena Tashjian, who teaches AP and IB High School English in Baltimore, seems as struck by George as I am. Looking at the gracefully inanimate giant, she says, "To be the last one of your kind—to be without a family, without kids, to be all alone in the world. Literally—not figuratively. He's a courageous fellow."

In some ways, George himself is symbolic of man's impact on the Galapagos in general—and he's easily the Galapagos' most tragic figure. He's majestic, beautiful, and absolutely unique. He's the rarest animal on earth. And he lingers on, obstinately, unable to or unsure of how to reproduce.

No matter what the scientists do, it seems that he'll eventually die alone, and bring about the demise of his species with him. He is a symbol of the end.

But he's also a symbol of hope--the very fact that he was rescued before the Pinta Island Tortoises went extinct altogether was emblematic of the growing vigor of global conservation efforts. And that there's a chance--even a slim one--that science may allow him to reproduce and continue his line, is indisputable evidence of how far we've come in species preservation.

So here's to you, Lonesome George. And good luck.

30 of the top teachers in the US are making a trek from the Florida Everglades to the Galapagos Islands in order to engage a series of global conservation issues in the Toyota International Teacher Program. I'm traveling alongside the educators to report on what we discover about the threats and wonders on modern day Galapagos.

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