By Wacho Tapia, Director of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative.
When I met Lonesome George in 1990, I never thought that I would be so closely tied to him over so many years, even after his death. My relationship with the tortoise began when I helped a friend collect data on his behavior. A few years later, when I began work at the Galapagos National Park, I was responsible for making decisions regarding his care in the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center on Santa Cruz, as well as for management decisions for the ecological restoration of Pinta, his native island.
On June 24, 2012, I was the second person to see him, after Don Fausto Llerena (Lonesome George’s friend and caretaker) found him dead in his corral. His death took us both by surprise. I’d seen him two days earlier and he’d seemed fine — but just as with humans, death can arrive without warning.
His death initiated a new and intense stage of the story of Lonesome George. The first step was to transport his body to a cold chamber to prevent decomposition. Shortly after, a necropsy was completed; Lonesome George, probably over 100 years old, died of natural causes. After that, efforts to preserve his body for eternity began.
The decision about what to do with Lonesome George was difficult. This wasn’t just any tortoise. This was Lonesome George — there was no room for error.
With relatively frequent power outages in Galapagos, maintaining his frozen body at a temperature that inhibits decomposition, but not so cold that it burns the tissue, was complicated. We managed this until March 2013, when with the necessary permits in hand, Lonesome George traveled north to the American Museum of Natural History in New York for expert taxidermy. My first moment of satisfaction came when I received news from Dr. James Gibbs, who had accompanied Lonesome George on his journey, that they had arrived and that the museum experts indicated that they had never received such a well-preserved specimen.
Although it was estimated that the taxidermy would take approximately six to eight months, it ended up taking much longer. Lonesome George’s return to Galapagos was also delayed due to other factors, including the construction of a building on Santa Cruz with the correct conditions for his long-term preservation. During these years, I changed jobs, but my responsibility to contribute to his preservation did not end. In 2014, I began working for Galapagos Conservancy, the organization that financed not only the taxidermy work and Lonesome George’s transport, but also directly coordinated it from the USA. In my new post as director of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative, I continued to be involved with Lonesome George.
In 2014, I had the opportunity to visit Lonesome George at the WildLife Preservations studio, where George Dante, the taxidermist responsible for the process, worked passionately to complete this important task. It was then that I knew that Lonesome George was in the best and most professional hands possible. Thus reassured, I returned to Galapagos where I continued to receive periodic updates to share with the Galapagos National Park. Then, at the end of November 2016, when Lonesome George’s new home in Galapagos was nearly ready, I once again became deeply involved in his return. My previously quiet routine in relation to this tortoise quickly transitioned into a series of stressful and complex situations that needed solutions; because I was not the decision-maker, I acted primarily as the link between the various actors involved.
Many will ask what made it so complicated. The answer is simple. In a tropical archipelago where getting a simple fan for your home can be difficult, to create a room and within that room a chamber that will be maintained — for 24 hours per day, 365 days a year — at 66°F, 55% humidity, and 50 Lux of light (the conditions necessary to hold such a specimen), was a complex challenge. Despite an excellent job by the builders, I discovered several problems after monitoring the chamber, problems that could not be resolved locally. The type of air conditioner required did not exist in Ecuador; we quickly purchased two climate control devices directly from the manufacturer in Ohio. These were shipped to Syracuse, New York, and Dr. James Gibbs, who accompanied Lonesome George on his voyage north, carried the vital equipment to Galapagos. James and the equipment arrived a mere 3.5 hours before Lonesome George.
Meanwhile, in Galapagos, the Galapagos National Park Directorate had a technical and administrative team working round the clock, not only to make sure the chamber was ready but also to coordinate with various governmental bodies. This included scheduling a military transport plane to carry Lonesome George from Guayaquil to Galapagos. Although he could fly as cargo in a commercial flight from New York to Ecuador, his box was too large to enter the cargo holds of the smaller commercial airplanes that regularly make the Galapagos run.
Back in the United States, many others were also working against the clock to send Lonesome George home. GC staff scrambled to get all the necessary permits, shipping manifests, tickets, and official letters for customs (both leaving the USA and arriving in Ecuador) to ensure no surprises on his return journey.
These were weeks of excessive stress for many of us, with constant modifications, emergencies, and challenges – in the USA, in mainland Ecuador, and in Galapagos. Time was our collective enemy. But through it all, everyone worked hard to ensure that Lonesome George would return home and that he would remain there forever.
Visitors who see Lonesome George in his new exhibit will never know the complex process and enormous efforts by so many people to bring him home and to have his “Room of Hope” opened to the public as planned on February 23, 2017. And the work goes on. The Galapagos National Park is the entity responsible to ensure the future of this Galapagos icon, though many of us will continue to be involved. The spirit of Lonesome George will accompany us always – reminding us that human beings have a responsibility to ensure that the fate of the Pinta Island tortoise is not repeated in other species, not only in Galapagos but around the world.
Photo credits, from top: Lonesome George © Galapagos National Park; “Sala de Esperanza” by Ron Giegerich; Wacho & James Gibbs © Linda Cayot; Lonesome George’s arrival © Ron Giegerich; Wacho and Lonesome George © Andrés Tapia.
Read Lonesome George Returns Home by GC President Johannah Barry, which includes more details of the taxidermy process for Lonesome George.
View the 40-page paperback, The Lonesome George Story: Where Do We Go from Here? by GC Science Advisor Dr. Linda Cayot.