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Requiem for a tortoise

June 26, 2012

I met Lonesome George a couple of years ago in his enclosure on the main Galapagos island of Santa Cruz. The craggy giant was a ‘living fossil’, the last of his sub-species and a a poignant relic from a pre-human time. Because, sadly, wherever humans go around this planet, we leave in our wake the skeletons of once mighty animals.

With a giant tortoise on the Santa Cruz highlands

Giant tortoises, like giant birds, giant sloths, giant kangaroos… there used to be such creatures and large numbers of them. Then humans found them and one by one, most of the world’s megafauna has been wiped out. The giant tortoises of the Galapagos are being protected – belatedly. There are breeding programmes and various attempts to repopulate the islands with near-extinct subspecies. They tried to mate George with closely related subspecies of tortoise – for what? To enable part of his DNA to persist, I suppose, in an enclosure or perhaps back on the island of Pinta where his clan once lived. Anyway, it was unsuccessful. George was uninterested, perhaps infertile, perhaps gay? So he died at 100-years-young, middle age for a giant tortoise, and the last of his type. No doubt there will be talk of trying to clone him.

Wallowing: giant tortoises like to take the weight off

Although George was already a living fossil and kept as a museum piece in his enclosure, in walks across the islands I encountered several other giant tortoises roaming free. So, in our changed, human-centric world, we have decided to keep a place for these giants, and it makes me very happy. They are incredible animals: huge, heavy ancient reptiles that wallow in the mud, graze, fart and poo green pats like cows, carry their houses on their backs and regard you with the expression only otherwise seen on very old men. They are also iconic animals, made famous by Charles Darwin, and the focus of a very lucrative tourist industry.

The future: baby tortoises at a breeding centre

So as another species bites the dust – the extinction rate in the Anthropocene is 1000 times the natural rate – there’s an excellent chance that tortoises born on the islands’ breeding centres will still be around in a couple of hundred years.

RIP Lonesome George (here’s a piece by his biographer and my pal Henry Nicholls).

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