The fragility of the natural world in Ecuador (and around the world) can be summed up in just one word: George!

George, or Lonesome George as he is more commonly known has come to be an unwitting star in the Galapagos Islands as a symbol for conservationists and naturalists the world over.

Lonesome George is a Giant Tortoise from the small island of Pinta in the north of the archipelago. Found by explorers in 1971 He was alone on the island and has since been classified as the sole survivor of the Pinta tortoise (Geochelone elephantopus abingdoni): this is the rarest species on the planet (being just one) and George appears in the Guinness Book of Records as the loneliest creature alive (despite the fact that over 50,000 tourists a year come to visit him).
There are 11 different species of giant tortoise on the Galapagos, each from a different island- the main difference between the species being in the shape of each shell- adapted to suite the conditions on each island. The Pinta tortoise boast a saddle back style of shell, raised at the front; giving a freedom of movement perfect for the tortoises’ long neck to reach up to vegetation on higher branches.

Lonesome_George_-Pinta_giant_tortoise_-Santa_CruzSince his discovery George has been moved from Pinta Island to the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS): founded in 1959 this science station, on the main island of Santa Cruz, is dedicated to the research and preservation of the Galapagos species.

In an attempt to continue the line of Pinta tortoises George has been housed with two females from Wolf Island a species showing the most similarities to the Pinta Tortoise. George however, has shown little interest in these other females and is yet to mate, let alone produce offspring. Some people point to the fact that during his solitude on Pinta George never developed ‘proper tortoise mating etiquette’ others have just give him another nickname, “Gay George.”

When George was discovered several other species of Giant Tortoise had already been declared extinct, and many others were critically endangered. Merchant sailors, whalers and explorers of the new world all took tortoises from the Galapagos Islands to provide fresh food during their voyage. With the ability to survive up to a year without food or water the giant tortoise was the perfect fresh meat source for early travelers. Every ship that docked on the Galapagos left with a hold full of giant tortoises. Sadly, the adaptations that have ensured the species survival for thousands of years also led to its downfall once mankind arrived on the islands. The CDRS now runs a captive breeding program that has resulted in the gradual recovery of tortoise numbers on a number of islands.

In 2007 new hope beckoned for George when a scientist, analyzing DNA in giant tortoises, discovered a tortoise on Isabella Island that is a cross between a Pinta male and Isabella female. Unfortunately it is male, but its mere existence and young age (about 30 years) raises the possibility of a purebred Pinta tortoise, perhaps even a female, roaming around on another island.

George is about 70 – 90 years old and with giant tortoises capable of living to almost 200 there is still time for scientists to scour the Galapagos Islands for a mate. If this proves fruitless however there is still the hope that science may progress to enable George to reproduce without a mate. Or his cooperation.

Photo by putneymark

mattscott200Matt Scott has spent the majority of his adult life working and traveling abroad. A keen writer and photographer his work has appeared on line and in print in publications around the world. He currently lives in Paris where he works for an active travel company.

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