Lonesome George: The Face of Extinction

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Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
 Nature’s Animal Ambassador

    “Whatever happens to this single animal, let him always remind us that 
                 the fate of all living things on Earth is in human hands.”

     These words, inscribed on a panel by the enclosure where the last of his race, the Pinta Island tortoise called Lonesome George, are no longer needed.  George died on June 24, 2012, at an undetermined age, but likely more than 100 years.  Even so, his actual death is merely a symbol of extinction, since he was the only one of his kind left.  Without a mate for George, this species was doomed.

     Perhaps George’s death, however, will impress people with the power of our own species to doom or to save others.  The thoughtless short-term thinking so common among humans ignores the long-term effects of our actions.  During the 1800s, whalers, fur sealers, and other seafaring folks raided the Galapagos Islands for food.  The giant land tortoises that populated the islands were perfect for long-term storage, as they could survive for a year or more on a ship without eating or drinking.  Their diluted urine provided drinking water as well.  The Pinta tortoise population was hit the hardest by this exploitation because Pinta is the farthest north of the islands and thus the last one visited when the sailors left for the open sea.

     By 1959 the tortoises had just about disappeared from Pinta. Some fishermen released three goats there, knowing they would reproduce to make island meat once more available to ships.  The goat population exploded, devastating the island vegetation and dooming any animals that depended on it for survival.

     In 1979, a scientist studying snails came across George, who was soon brought to the Tortoise Center on nearby Santa Cruz Island for protection.  But hopes of finding a mate for George and thus saving his species faded with the years, and Lonesome George became what he remains after his death, a symbol of careless exploitation by humans.

     Now, after careful restoration of his remains, Lonesome George was on exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in 2015, after which he was returned to Ecuador.  The plaque overlooking his old corral now reads, “We promise to tell your story and to share your conservation message.”

In the early stages of the taxidermy process, multiple casts of Lonesome George’s extremities were taken for future reference. © AMNH/R. Mickens
This map shows the distribution of the various races of the Galapagos tortoise. The islands, collectively known as the Galapagos, are located along the Equator and are part of the nation of Ecuador. Image by Fallschirmjäger from Wikimedia
It is said that George’s head was used as an inspiration for the design of the movie character ET. Photo by Dorothy Patent
Lonesome George was recently on view in New York City’s Museum’ of Natural History’s 4th floor Astor Turret. © AMNH/R. Mickens
Some good news! Unlike the Pinta subspecies, conservationists have managed to help bring back the tortoises on the Galapagos island of Espanola from a low of only 16 to a population of more than 1,000 now living on their home island. Here, scientists are recording information about the tortoises in their native environment. Photo : Flickr: Sebastian Keynes via Christian Zeigler


Read how one endangered species got returned to its natural home and thrived in Dorothy’s book, When the Wolves Returned:  Restoring Nature’s Balance in Yellowstone.  She says “ I loved writing this book, which describes the positive changes in the ecology of the park that are happening since the wolves came back–healthier willows, more beavers and small predators, more song birds, and more. Wolves have also returned to several western states around Yellowstone, including Montana, and their presence there is also helping restore the natural environment.” 
Dorothy Patent is a member of Authors on Call.  You can bring her to your school via our Zoom Room.  Here’s a link to her program on wolves.

MLA 8 Citation
Patent, Dorothy Hinshaw. “Lonesome George: The Face of Extinction.” Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 27 Nov. 2017,  www.nonfictionminute.org/ Lonesome-George-the-face-of-extinction. 

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