Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of the World's Most Famous Tortoise

The compelling story of the last surviving giant tortoise on the Galapagos Islands

Citation Information

Bender, Robert 2016. Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of the World's Most Famous Tortoise, URL = <>.

Publication Information

Nicholls, Henry, Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of the World's Most Famous Tortoise, London: Pan, 2007, pp. xviii+231, (paperback).

Lonesome George: last surviving Pinta giant tortoise (Geochelone nigra abingdoni) on Santa Cruz

Lonesome George was the last giant tortoise from Pinta Island, the island northernmost of the Galapagos group. He was discovered in 1972, 60 years after the last search of the island, during a botanizing expedition and taken to the Charles Darwin Research station. Lonesome George became the icon of the endangered species campaign for millions of tourists for over 40 years until his death in June 2012, at the age of about 100. Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of the World's Most Famous Tortoise is the story of this last Pinta tortoise, with many detours into the byways of the destruction of small island populations by sailors collecting live food for their ships' holds, efforts to bring other critically endangered species back from the brink and the problem of hybrids and inbreeding. Along the way, the reader is also treated to the rediscovery of species believed extinct, the occasional bloody-minded killing of rare animals, the problems of working out the age of tortoises captured as adults and techniques for artificial insemination—very difficult to apply to reptiles.

Efforts to breed Seychelles giant tortoises were much more successful when they were in large groups, as it is a social experience of inter-male competition. A young Swedish biology student, Sveva Grigioni, became expert at inducing erections in tortoises and obtaining sperm samples for analysis of fertility. Unfortunately, her work was cut short by the need to return home to get on with her postgraduate research. So, it all came to nothing.

The Galapagos are so far from mainland South America that it has been difficult to work out how the giant tortoises got there. However, experiments showed that they are strong swimmers and may have floated out on vegetation rafts. Theories of drowned land bridges were ended as tectonic plate movements and volcanic hotspots were explained—the Galapagos Islands become younger and higher from east to west. Discussed in the book is the question of whether gigantism developed on the mainland or only in island populations.

Do the several different tortoises in the island group all belong to different species, or to just different subspecies? Although Darwin stayed on the islands for several weeks, he realized the answer to this question only slowly and only after learning that the tortoise differences on each island were very significant. Meanwhile, he joined in eating 30 large tortoises kept in the Beagle's hold. DNA evidence is now used to explore the relatedness of the different populations and how they may have dispersed from the first landfall millions of years ago.

Book cover: Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of the World's Most Famous Tortoise by Henry Nicholls

Commercial exploitation of sea cucumbers, valued as aphrodisiacs by the Chinese, has brought thousands of poor Ecuadorians to the islands to make money. This has generated much conflict with the scientists and conservationists, especially since 97 per cent of the islands' area was declared a national park. The human population has grown rapidly with the expansion of the cucumber trade, with riots and threats by fishermen that they will kill everything and burn all vegetation on some islands. Overpopulation, of course, has had serious impact on island food chains. A related issue is the huge growth in tourism, with its expanding demand for accommodation, water and waste disposal, and the inevitable arrival of new species on boots and seeds in clothing—some parasites have been particularly disastrous.

Release of goats and pigs on some islands by passing sailors has devastated island flora and accelerated soil erosion. Ambitious programs to eradicate all goats and pigs have succeeded on some islands. These have seen a rapid recovery of damaged ecosystems. In some, tortoises no longer compete with goats for food.

Efforts to find potential mates for George in zoo collections in Europe and North America have failed, as have intensive searches for more Pinta tortoises. Although some recently deceased skeletons suggest there may have been some. In the book, there is a fascinating chapter on efforts by captive breeding projects to return animals to the wild. Some young animals are too naïve to survive predators, but protecting these animals until they are near adult size can be successful.

Nicholls concludes his book with an interesting discussion of the possibilities of cloning and the likelihood that George will die without descendants. This book is a great read, detouring along the way into many byways of biology, conservation and animal-human conflict.

Copyright © 2016

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