Posted on behalf of Henry Nicholls.
Lonesome George is dead. The celebrity Galapagos giant tortoise, widely known as the world’s rarest creature, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday in Puerto Ayora, the largest town in Galapagos on the central island of Santa Cruz.
George, who is thought to have been around 100 years old, was discovered in 1971 by a Hungarian-born snail biologist working alone on the uninhabited northerly island of Pinta. Until then, conservationists had assumed his subspecies was extinct, owing to centuries of exploitation by hungry pirates and whalers. When the Galapagos National Park (GNP) captured him and shipped him to Santa Cruz the following year, it was hoped that Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni might be coaxed back from the brink of extinction.
But in spite of further searches on Pinta and in zoos around the world, the GNP never found another of his kind. In the 1990s, two female tortoises from a different island — Wolf volcano on Isabela — joined George in his enclosure at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, but George remained aloof. He showed no more interest in females of the more closely related Espanola variety introduced to him in 2009.
As his popularity grew among the boatloads of tourists turning up in Galapagos in ever-increasing numbers, he became a conservation icon, a reptilian poster boy for the Galapagos conservation effort.
His lack of sexual prowess also made George a figure of considerable fun, but as the most famous Galapagos resident — human or otherwise — he remained a quiet but powerful ambassador for the islands and for endangered species everywhere.
Lonesome George’s untimely death has deprived Galapagos of another of its irreplaceable species. The Islands have also lost an animal with whom a meeting was, for many visitors, a revelation. The human impact on Galapagos has been profound, and nothing could communicate this as effectively as this singular tortoise.