Galapagos in Mourning

June 26, 2012

Sunday morning in Mi Caleta, a small hotel in Pto. Ayora, Dr. Linda Cayot, Dr. James Gibbs, and I were finishing breakfast and settling down to discuss the logistics of an upcoming international workshop on participatory monitoring (citizen science), the first such workshop to be held in Galapagos. Linda grabbed my phone (note: Linda, along with my husband Dave, may indeed be the last two people on earth without a cell phone) to check in with her colleague at the National Park, her longtime friend and co-coordinator of the workshop, with some logistical questions. Her quick call to Wacho (Washington Tapia, Director of Environmental Programming for the Galapagos National Park) proved to be a moment we will never forget.

After ending her call, and having a quick word with James, Linda took me aside to tell me that Lonesome George had been found dead that morning in his corral.  Linda couldn’t finish her sentence before she started to cry and soon after, James and I had difficulty keeping our composure. Linda and James had known Lonesome George since 1981; I met him in 1991. George was like a cranky, eccentric uncle that you knew you would see at every family reunion. Except this year. Lonesome George was gone and it was impossible to believe. And with George – his species.

Lonesome George surveying his corral at the Tortoise Center on Santa Cruz Island.
Lonesome George surveying his corral at the Tortoise Center on Santa Cruz Island.

Keenly aware of the global significance of this news, Park officials wisely wanted to get this information out to the public as quickly and accurately as possible.  We asked the Park officials if we might be allowed to help create a press release that gave a bit more of the background of Lonesome George and a vision toward the future for tortoise restoration in Galapagos. Linda had worked with George daily for over 10 years, and wanted to provide, if the Park would allow us, a fuller story about George and what he means for conservation.

The Park generously gave us time to pull our thoughts together, but we were mindful of their need as the key management agency in Galapagos to ensure that the news of George’s death was handled with the utmost care and precision. We began to write in sequence, each adding to the others’ thoughts until we managed to capture the essence of what George meant to Galapagos and to species preservation (and the precarious situation of many species not only in Galapagos but also throughout the world). 

After the news was released by the Park, we found ourselves thinking through the timing of George’s death. Last year, we began collaborating with the Park to organize a tortoise recovery workshop in which local and international scientists and managers would create a long-term recovery plan for Galapagos tortoises focused on both critical research and management.  We assumed, of course, that George would be with us in July of this year, as our unofficial host. That he isn’t, is actually more reason to move ahead. The plight of Lonesome George and his species has catalyzed so much research in species recovery (captive breeding and repatriation, genetic research leading to breeding programs, ecosystem restoration for tortoise recovery, etc.). Lonesome George’s message ultimately must be a message of hope and of resolve.  We cannot and will not lose another species in Galapagos.  Our efforts will be directed at species enhancement, recovery, and restoration.

We will miss Lonesome George, but he will be a strong presence with us in July. What we do, we do for him and for all the creatures that inhabit this extraordinary place.

For Galapagos,

Johannah Barry
President of Galapagos Conservancy

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