"Lonesome George" – a famous media star and the last existing Pinta island tortoise –
In 1535, an archipelago consisting of 5 larger, 10 medium sized and several small volcanic islands was explored. The most striking animals on 11 of the islands were giant dark tortoises in a great number.
Therefore those islands were named "Insulae de los Galopegos" (Islands of the Tortoises) – Galapagos. On the first glimpse, the Galapagos tortoises (Chelonoidis elephantopus) seem to be similar to the Giant tortoises (Megalochelys gigantea) of the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. But through detailed research it was shown that the Galapagos tortoises have a close relationship to the land tortoises of South America. The closest living relative of the Galapagos tortoise is the Argentine tortoise (Chelonoidis chilensis), a much smaller species from South America. The divergence between both species probably occurred 6–12 million years ago. In that time, some tortoises arrived from mainland South America by overwater dispersal and by a passive journey facilitated by the Humboldt Current. After years they evolved into a special subspecies on each island. Today, altogether 15 different subspecies are known. But not all of them survived until today.When in the 19th century the hunters for seals and whales came to Galapagos, they exploited the species for meat and oil. In about 30 years more than 200.000 tortoises were killed. Therefore the tortoise numbers declined from over 250,000 to a low of around 3,000 in the 1970s. In the beginning of the 20th century scientists recognized the critical status of the Galapagos tortoises. However, during the last decades the intention to guarantee the survival and the protection of the still existing populations became more and more important. Of all 15 subspecies, which lived originally on the Galapagos Islands, two populations (on Santa Fé & Floreana) are definitely extinct.
Red-footed tortoise, the next relative to "Lonesome George" on the South American continent (Click to view larger image).
Galapagos local restaurant signboard design (Click to view larger image).
"Lonesome George" was for quite a long time the only representative of his subspecies (Chelonoidis e. abingdoni), which lived far in the North of the archipelago, on Pinta Island.He was a male, who was relocated for his safety to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island.Known as the rarest creature in the world he made always again headlines in the international media. "Lonesome George" became the incarnation of the endangered species diversity and served as a potent symbol for conservation efforts in the Galapagos Islands and throughout the world. For all the 165.000 tourist, who travel per year to the Galapagos Islands, the visit of the Charles Darwin Research Station is a must on Santa Cruz Island and "Lonesome George" was a regular object of public warship. Famous and normal visitors queued up to have a photo with "Lonesome George". It is a pity that no one succeeded in finding a female Pinta island tortoise for breeding purpose. Therefore "Lonesome George" died with an age of 80-100 years as a bachelor. He was the last representative of his subspecies, when he died almost three years ago on June 24, 2012. Now this subspecies of the Galapagos tortoise is also extinct. Because of his fame the media and the global public registered the extinction of this subspecies of the giant Galapagos tortoise as a great tragedy.
Nonetheless it was obvious that even the most intensive protection measurements have no effect, if the number of the endangered species is already too small. The dead "Lonesome George" was transported to the American Museum for Natural History in New York and the stuffed animal can be seen there now as the last representative of his subspecies. Later he will be brought back to Ecuador again.
Entrance of Charles Darwin Research Station (Click to view larger image).
Stuffed "Lonesome George" in American Museum of Natural History (Click to view larger image).
"Lonesome George" on Ecuador stamps (Click to view larger image).
To keep the other surviving Galapagos tortoises still alive for future generations it is important that the often small rest populations are intensively protected in their natural habitat. Sometimes also the habitat has to be renaturalized again. The natural habitat was in our Lost Zoo the model for the design of the enclosure for Galapagos tortoises. In our Lost Zoo the tortoises can choose in their enclosure the food, they can take a bath in the sun or take a mud-bath.
Pinta island tortoise enclosure in LOST ZOO (Click to view larger image).
Executive Curator of LOST ZOO