Its is probable that no extinction event in history has been as well flagged or indeed so well-defined. Lonesome George, the last Pinta giant tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni ) was found dead in his pen on the 24th June 2012. The species has been functionally extinct for decades: one member is by definition the last of his kind.
Our trip to the Galapagos, three years ago it shames me to say, has remained unblogged not because I didn’t have anything to say but because I couldn’t think of what to leave out. It was an extraordinary week of tortoises and turtles, seals, snorkelling, a submarine environment that seemed to have been taken straight out of the Pixar archives, slave traders, volcanoes, forest, beaches, iguanas, excitement, adventure and really wild things. Maybe even more importantly the people of the Galapagos seem to have huge pride in the unique place in which they live and its scientific importance and this really came through to me as a visitor: I felt privileged just to be there.
Even in the midst of all of that the Darwin Research Centre is an extraordinary place, with breeding programmes in place to preserve the many species and subspecies of tortoise and allowing us to see all stages of the process, and this was a highlight of our second-last day.
The star of the show, George, wasn’t in a co-operative mood and my memory of him is of a back view as he disappeared into a thicket. It wasn’t me apparently, he just didn’t like people very much. Or other tortoises, and he probably wasn’t a great fan of most other life forms either for that matter – as a fellow grump I sympathised.
One of his companions, females of a different but closely related species, did deign to have her photo taken. Although a clutch of eggs was found in 2008 they all turned out to be infertile.
Many factors contributed to the collapse of these unique populations of tortoises, many thankfully brought back from the brink of extinction. They were seen as walking larders by the sailors exploring the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: they could survive for a year with no food or water making them ideal fodder for a long sail voyage where it was quite uncertain when you would next spy land, let alone find a supermarket. It was this ability, ironically, that helped them get to the Galapagos in the first place, adrift on rafts of vegetation washed out to sea millions of years ago. After millions of years as the only large species on the islands they were unprepared for the arrival of rats (which eat the eggs) and goats (which tear the vegetation up by the roots). And of course it takes a long time to grow a giant tortoise, so the populations never had time to recover.
Another subspecies, the Hood Island tortoise, provides a more cheerful story.
In the early 1970s there were only 13 of these tortoises known, and only two males, which didn’t augur well for the gene pool. A cry for help went round to the world’s zoos and San Diego zoo replied that yes, they did have a Latino male in custody. Diego, as he was inevitably christened, was duly deported back to the Centro Darwin where he has for forty years led a pampered existence. He is rather less shy than poor old Jorge, and quite happy to pose.
Later in the day we headed up to the mountains of Santa Cruz where we drank local coffee and came across the local Santa Cruz tortoise – which likes to use the roads to get about but then sits down in the middle of them as soon as it hears a car coming.
George may be gone, but the effort to understand and preserve the fantastic laboratory, the unparalleled window on evolution, that is the Galapagos continues.