For those of you who started following my blog for its sewing and crafting content, this particular post might seem out of place. But I initially turned to sewing and knitting as small ways I could contribute to worldwide sustainability and environmental conservation. It is on this particular theme that I write today.
This past weekend, the loss of a single life resulted in the extinction of an entire [sub]species of giant tortoise. Lonesome George was a Galapagos Giant Tortoise, of the Pinta Island variety or sub-species. He was over 100 years old and although they never met, he was alive when Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands. His distinctive saddle-back shaped shell is often cited as an example of natural selection. The shape (in comparison to the domed-shaped shells on the tortoises in wetter island climates) allows this drier climate tortoise species to stretch and reach edible vegetation high off the ground. All of his Pinta Island relatives died years ago, because of poaching and habitat loss (to goats!!).
[The National Geographic webpage has a great scientific summary of Lonesome George here.]
After he was found on Pinta Island in 1972 (years after Pinta Tortoises were thought to be extinct) George had the privilege (and the burden) of being an icon of the environmental conservation efforts. At the time of his death, he was sharing his corral with two females, from Espanola Island, in hopes that he might be interested in mating. No offspring were ever sired. As the last of his [sub]species, his loneliness was broadcast worldwide as a lesson about the loss of biodiversity and environmental crises.
From the Galapagos National Park press release:
The plight of Lonesome George provided a catalyst for an extraordinary effort by the government of Ecuador to restore not only tortoise populations throughout the archipelago but also improve the status of other endangered and threatened species.
In September 2011, Greg and I had the privilege to visit the Galapagos Islands for vacation. Although he was shy (and perhaps weary with old age), we got to meet George during a visit to the Giant Tortoise Conservation and Breeding Center in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island.
As soon as I woke up this morning, Facebook status updates from two of my UK-residing Galapagos travel companions alerted me to George’s passing. I met him for only 20 minutes, less than 0.00005% of his lifetime, but I will admit that I cried a little bit today.
His story was heavily anthropomorphized. We humans seem to respond better to animals when we share emotions or experiences with them; I am guilty of this as well. For a moment I wondered if he might meet up with his Pinta Island relatives in a Tortoise-heaven. Then I shook my head to shake off that silly idea. Then I wondered if he was at all aware of his loneliness. (Even man’s best friend knows when they’ve been separated from their pack.) Did he realize that the other tortoises in his pen were not exactly like him? Was he aware that he had not seen another Pinta Giant Tortoise for over 40 years?
Many refer to him as an ICON of environmental conservation. However, he is only one organism that has been impacted by changes in climate, natural resource exploitation (by human organisms), and general human development and population expansion. And he will not be the last.
Rest in Peace, George. I am honored that I got to see you while you was alive. I’ll mourn your passing, and I pledge to keep doing my small part to help protect our planet’s biodiversity by making environmentally-responsible choices.