Lonesome George – THE symbol of the Galapagos and the threat of extinction – has finally returned to the Islands. He arrived 17 February, and his new home was opened to the public on 23 February.
His homecoming included the inauguration of his new climate-control “apartment,” the Symbol of Hope Salon, and the new Giant Tortoise Route at the Galapagos National Park headquarters and Charles Darwin Research Station at Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island.
Lonesome George was also given the title Cultural National Heritage by Ecuador’s Ministry of Culture and Heritage.
Lonesome George: The Galapagos Icon
In 1972, Lonesome George (called Solitario Jorge in Ecuador) was discovered on Pinta Island and brought to the breeding center on Santa Cruz Island where he spent the next 40 years. He became a symbol of the fight against species extinction.
Despite repeated searches of Pinta Island and in zoos around the globe, no female Pinta Island tortoise was ever found. With the advent of genetic testing, scientists discovered that tortoises from Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island were close relatives. Several times, the females laid eggs — but all proved to be infertile. Later, two females from the Española Island, a species even more closely related, were placed with him. Again, no offspring were produced.
Lonesome George, the last pure-bred Pinta Island giant tortoise, died on June 24, 2012 without heirs. He was approximately 90 years old.
After his death, his body was taken to the United States, where with the assistance of the Galapagos Conservancy and taxidermy experts at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, his body was painstakingly preserved.
After two years of work, Lonesome George was exhibited at the American Museum of Natural History September 2014-January 2015. In the meantime, the Galapagos National Park along with The Galapagos Conservancy and other agencies worked to build his new home with state-of-the-art climate control to ensure his preservation for many generations to come.
A New Route Awaits You
When visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station, tours now stop in at Lonesome George’s new show case, the Symbol of Hope Salon (Sala Símbolo de Esperanza). It is the last stop on the new Tortoise Route (Ruta de la Tortuga) that begins at the renovated Fausto Llerena Breeding Center on Santa Cruz Island.
The Tortoise Route is a series of boardwalks leading to areas with different themes: Everything Changes (Todo Cambia, which examines evolution in the Galapagos Islands), Curious Traveler (Viajero Curioso, about Charles Darwin), New Travelers (Nuevas Viajeras, about breeding giant tortoises in captivity) and Giant Tortoises (Tortugas Gigantes, the environmental importance of giant tortoises, their threatened extinction, and the restoration of ecosystems in the Galapagos Islands). All displays are bilingual.
If you are traveling on your own to the Galapagos Islands, the Ruta de la Tortuga and Lonesome George’s new gallery are open daily 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The Future of the Breeding Program
The ecological niche that giant tortoises occupy is extremely important to the environmental health of the Galapagos Islands. To restore the four islands where tortoises are now extinct (Fernandina – due to volcanic eruption; and Pinta, Floreana and Santa Fe, due to humans) is a seemingly impossible goal.
However, a new project is one step to making this dream a reality. Geneticists have discovered that tortoise populations on Wolf Volcano (Isabela) are a genetic mix of the now-extinct species of Floreana and Pinta islands. Specimens have been gathered, and will be bred to repopulate these isles.
Perhaps in the future your tour to these islands will feature the sighting of giant tortoises.
To learn more about the preservation of Lonesome George and the future breeding programs, watch the fascinating documentary, Preserving Lonesome George.
Photo credit: A. Davey