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The legacy of Lonesome George

Clichés like “his kind will never be seen again” are often the mainstay of obituaries. In the case of Lonesome George such platitudes are perfectly justified.

With his passing, so follows the demise of the Pinta Island Tortoise, an animal once so prolific, sailors passing through the Galapagos archipelago, thought nothing of filling their larders with the beasts as convenient and much needed protein for their long voyages at sea.

Scientists estimate that George was about 100 years old – a “good innings” for most yet a premature passing in this case, as life expectancy for a Giant Tortoise is about 200. Such was his celebrity status George was an ambassador for the Galapagos National Park, a poster boy for the Galapagos Conservation Trust and a symbol for endangered species everywhere. His plight resonated beyond the realms of biologists and his inability to procreate made headlines all over the world, such were the tragic consequences of his condition.

While George’s impotence was well documented, the symbolism of his untimely death is potent beyond measure. Mention the word ‘extinction’ and, for most, thoughts of the Dodo immediately come to mind. The term has almost a historic ring to it, something that happened long ago, consigned to dusty encyclopaedias. George’s death is a reminder that the threat of extinction is real and immediate for a large number of the world’s animals. On the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species there are currently 3,947 species considered “critically endangered”, starting with Aaptosyax Grypus (Mekong Giant Salmon Carp) and ending with Zyzomys Pedunculatus (Central Rock Rat).

There is no Mekong Giant Salmon Carp named George, kept in an aquarium and encouraged to mate with an unseemly line of female Salmon Carps and it is unlikely that obituaries will flood the internet when the last remaining Central Rock Rat draws its terminal breath. Yet what about the Sumatran Orangutan, or the Black Rhino – will the world take note when these animals move from the “critically endangered” list to the list marked “extinct”?

The finality of Lonesome George’s death is a poignant reminder that man’s actions have very real consequences. If we don’t take stock and increase efforts to conserve endangered animals worldwide, then obituaries for species rather than individuals will become commonplace.