'Lonesome George,' the Galapagos Giant Tortoise
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
There are only two places left in the world where giant tortoises live. One of them is the Galapagos Islands, just off the coast of Ecuador, where Charles Darwin found inspiration for his theory of evolution. The most famous tortoise there is called Lonesome George, so dubbed because he is the last tortoise of his kind. George was rescued from the Galapagos island of Pinta in the 1970s, and scientists have unsuccessfully tried to find him a mate since then. It's now considered almost inevitable that Lonesome George will die alone. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:
Although he's one of the main attractions at the Charles Darwin Station located on the island of Santa Cruz in the Galapagos, Lonesome George is an elusive animal.
Unidentified Man #1: Ouch.
Unidentified Man #2: Oh, he didn't know any better.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: A group of Americans with their tour guide talk as they crane their necks to try and see him. Unlike other tortoises in the captive breeding program, tours are not allowed into his pen. Lonesome George is special. David Wiedenfeld is the head of the Charles Darwin Center's department on vertebrate ecology.
Mr. DAVID WIEDENFELD (Department of Vertebrate Ecology, Charles Darwin Center): We're 99.9 percent sure he is the last individual of his species. There have been over the years a number of intensive searches on the island of Pinta to try to find any remaining individuals, including a search that was just a little over a year ago, and we've been able to find no one.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It was a shock when Lonesome George was found on Pinta Island in 1971. Before that, the last reported sighting of tortoises on Pinta was in 1906. Whalers were the first threat to the population. They used the giant tortoises for food, storing them in the holds of their ships because the reptiles can survive up to a year without sustenance. Then in the 1950s, another terrible plague brought by man descended on the island.
Mr. WIEDENFELD: Goats were introduced and goats devastated the vegetation on the island. And actually at the time he was found, the island was sort of denuded of vegetation, and probably the remaining tortoises that hadn't been harvested by humans probably had suffered from starvation and so forth and gradually declined to one.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lonesome George grew up alone, surrounded by the very animals that decimated the last of his siblings.
Mr. WIEDENFELD: As he grew up, he probably lived his first at least 30 years on Pinta by himself. He just never learned how to interact with other tortoises.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Once he was brought to the station, the goal became to make Lonesome George a little less alone. Scientists tried to breed him with his nearest relatives to save at least some of his genetic heritage, but so far nothing has worked.
Mr. WIEDENFELD: He's been placed with other females here to try to attract his attention. He's been placed in corrals with other males who presumably would show him what to do. He's had--different diets have been tried.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the last options, cloning, isn't really feasible yet. A tortoise's sex is determined by temperature and not by genes. But, says Wiedenfeld...
Mr. WIEDENFELD: No one really knows how to do cloning with the reptiles.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Scientists think Lonesome George is at least 70 years old. That puts him at about middle age. Tortoises are believed to be able to live up to 150 years. Graham Watkins is the executive director of the Charles Darwin Research Center. Lonesome George is now one of the 11 remaining races of the Galapagos giant tortoise, but Watkins says eventually that number will dwindle to 10.
Mr. GRAHAM WATKINS (Executive Director, Charles Darwin Research Center): I think it'd be lonesome for him. Yeah. I don't think there are any other mates around. That's it. So he's a bit of an emblem, sort of represents the example of what happens.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: One scientist called Lonesome George a living fossil because once a species gets down to a population of one, they are considered already extinct. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.
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BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.