Everyone knows him: clients who have visited the Galapagos Islands, agents who have sold those magical Galapagos vacations, tour operators who have designed nature’s wonderland experiences in Ecuador and the Galapagos, travel writers like me who rarely left him out of a story about Las Islas Encantadas.
We’re talking about Lonesome George, the giant tortoise who has been in residence for decades at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island. He passed away last week. The cause of death has yet to be determined, but scientists estimate that he was about 100 years old; not such an old man, actually, for a giant tortoise—found only in the Galapagos and on a few islands such as the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, these guys can live to 200+ years.
When the islands were first discovered, there were thought to be as many as 250,000 tortoises, and 14 islands each had its own species with Lonesome George the only known species from Pinta Island. He was the most famous, if not the most successful, member of the Darwin Station’s breeding program. After living for 15 years with a female tortoise from the nearby Wolf volcano, Lonesome George did mate, but the eggs were infertile. He also shared his corral with female tortoises from Espanola Island, which are genetically closer to him than those from Wolf. But none ever tickled his fancy.
Hunted to extinction for their meat by sailors and fishermen in the 19th century, then threatened further when goats and pigs were introduced to the islands in the 20th, there are some 15,000 giant tortoises left in the islands today. But none has the worldwide, rock-star celebrity of Lonesome George, a Galapagos icon.
His passing will be mourned in particular by his caretakers at the Galapagos Research Station and the naturalist guides who introduce visitors like me to the plight of the Galapagos tortoises, while proudly pointing to Lonesome George as a prime example of the survival of the very fittest.