Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature’s Animal Ambassador
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.”