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A single survivor

Nature volume 441, pages 286287 (18 May 2006) | Download Citation

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Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon

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Macmillan Science: 2006. 256 pp. £16.99, $24.95 1403945764

Conservation biology is a peculiar hybrid discipline, bounded on one side by hard empirical science and on the other by ageing actresses cuddling cute baby seals. As a result, conservation priorities reflect a sometimes bizarre balancing act between knowledge- and emotion-based perspectives of the natural world. This tension can occasionally result in an extraordinarily high public profile for an individual organism that can be argued to have some singular importance to conservation because it constitutes ‘the last of its kind’. Some kind-hearted humans who are all too aware of the pain of loneliness on a personal level can readily empathize with the tragic circumstances of the last survivor. The animal can then take on iconic status — and (a cynic might say) attract publicity and financial resources out of all proportion to its actual conservation significance. The iconic individuals that evoke empathy from humans are usually mammals or birds, but one reptile has captured hearts and minds — the forlorn figure of Lonesome George.

One foot in the grave: Lonesome George is thought to be the last of the Pinta Island tortoises. Image: REUTERS

George is an adult male Galapagos tortoise, and is believed to be the last surviving member of a race that was abundant on Pinta Island before being slaughtered as a protein source for the crews of passing vessels. Closely related organisms from different islands in this archipelago differ in size and shape, an observation that Charles Darwin famously used as evidence for his theories of evolutionary change. Indeed, it was an observation about the distinctiveness of tortoises from different islands that first alerted Darwin to the possibility of such spatial variation. So Lonesome George — captured in 1972, many decades after the Pinta race was thought to be extinct — is an icon for evolutionary biology as well as island conservation. As Henry Nicholls brings out in this delightfully written book, Lonesome George has also served as a lightning rod for scores of political, economic and scientific debates that have raged around the Galapagos as the islands have been transformed from a quiet site of scientific focus to a mecca for international tourism.

The science surrounding George is murky. How should you treat an internationally known conservation icon? Maintain him in luxury, where the tourists can pay to see him and be inspired about the urgent need for conservation efforts? Or release him back to freedom on his island, with females of a closely related lineage, at the risk that he will fall down a crevice and die? Or try to extract some of those Pinta-specific genes so his lineage can live on — at the risk of causing harm to this taciturn and decidedly non-amorous tortoise?

George continues to plod through his luxurious enclosure over the decades as the battle rages around him, and people come and go. These include a young Swiss biologist who massaged George's genitals on a daily basis for six months to try to arouse his sexual passions; a local fisherman who sends death threats against George whenever the government tries to regulate the harvest of marine fauna; scientists whose ideas and suggestions about managing George's affairs rarely manage to penetrate the regulations that surround such an icon; and a series of park directors determined to protect George at all costs.

Nicholls skilfully and seamlessly brings in a broad array of snippets from recent scientific research in a diverse array of disciplines as he outlines the potential approaches that a conservation biologist might take to George's plight. However, it is not even clear that George really is the last Pinta tortoise, as opposed to a recent reintroduction, because the genetic differences between the Pinta and Espanola tortoises are so small. Such local populations are blinking out all around us and rarely receive much attention from conservation biologists, let alone the public.

If George were a small brown lizard (or even worse, a snake), nobody would care. But the giant tortoises of the Galapagos convey a sense of serene contemplation and prehistoric dignity, and it is difficult not to anthropomorphize and imagine the world from George's viewpoint. The literary device of placing a reptilian icon at the centre of a dynamic play about science, conservation and our attitudes to nature results in a highly readable book that has much to say about the ways we flounder around in our attempts to protect things that seem important to us.

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  1. Rick Shine is at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales 2006, Australia.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/441286b

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