“I have some terrible news.”
Our guide Jorge put his phone down and pulled over to the side of the road to explain. Not a great series of events when traveling in remote South America.
“Lonesome George is dead.”
At 160 years of age, Lonesome George was the oldest tortoise in the world, and the last of his particular species. And as luck would have it, he passed away the day before he and I were to have met, when I visited his home in the Galapagos Islands.
Before George’s death, the Pinta Island tortoise had already been functionally extinct for twenty years, since there were no females left for George to impregnate. There were a couple of close relatives that he fooled around with, just hooking up, heavy petting, but the batch never took and so there he was: an aging dinosaur, neutered and thrust into the role of a mascot for wildlife conservation.
Over the past half-decade, hundreds of thousands of tourists have stopped by George’s enclosure to get a good look at him, and why not? He was by definition the rarest thing on the earth. Most of the locals we met on our trip had stories about the summer they spent taking care of him. In the Galapagos, a turtlekeeper’s job mostly involves cleaning up the turtle’s shit, and telling people how old it is and what it eats. Still, most of the people we met shared a profound sadness for his passing. Jorge told us over lunch that day that he felt like an old friend had passed away.
As sad as the residents of the Galapagos were, they all also shared a clear anger. George’s species should never have gone extinct. About forty years ago, explorers found two female tortoises roaming about on Pinta Island. They trapped them and brought them to Santa Cruz, where George resided. The British scientists at the Darwin Research Center wanted to take them back to England but it was determined that the trip was too hard for a tortoise. So while George looks on all like, “What the fuck?” from behind his fence, the British decide to kill the two lady tortoises so that future generations will be able to study them.
Now, I don’t know much about marine biology, but there has to be some sort of evolutionary pain mechanism that kicks in if you’re the last male of your species and the last two females of reproductive age are slaughtered in front of you. It would seem that nature would have a way to let you know that was really bad, and that others might want to avoid that at all costs.
But instead they were killed in front of him, and George was left with the biggest case of blue balls imaginable.
George would go on to become a quasi-celebrity, his image appearing next to hilarious “Blue Footed Booby” t-shirts in Galapagos gift shops, and as a frequent matter of trivia on Jeopardy. And sure enough, there he was on our itinerary as a day-trip, but unfortunately I’ll never see George, or any Pinta Island tortoise for that matter.
The Galapagos is a place where you tend to spend a lot of time thinking about evolution, and from my uneducated point of view it seems that over the past one hundred years, the human brain has evolved faster than anything else at any time in history. Futurists claim that there’s a twenty percent chance that we evolve too fast, become really smart, and kill everything on the planet within the next one hundred years. Fitting then that the day after George died we stopped for lunch at a cafe overlooking his former habitat. The daily special sign read, “We have witnessed extinction, let’s hope we learn from it.”
Eric Sollenberger lives in Austin, TX. He doesn't keep anything weird, he drives a car, and he drinks expensive beer without irony.