As many of you know, Lonesome George — last known Pinta Island tortoise — died on June 24, 2012. What many may not know is the story of his adventures after death, and the many people and institutions who came together to ensure that Lonesome George would be respectfully and gratefully remembered. His death cautioned us on the fragility of our relationship with the natural world and how quickly, and finally, that world can suffer at our hands. However, Lonesome George’s story should not simply be a moral tale; the work that his death inspired — the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative — has laid the foundation for recovery of all Galapagos tortoise populations impacted by humans to numbers unseen for nearly two hundred years. This gives us cause for optimism and faith in the power of cooperation and collaboration.
After George’s death, the decision was made to have his body preserved. With the critical assistance of the staff at the American Museum of Natural History and the Galapagos National Park Directorate, Galapagos Conservancy was able to send Lonesome George on the first of his many adventures. Arriving in New York on March 12, 2013, under the watchful eye of his traveling companion, Dr. James Gibbs of SUNY-ESF in Syracuse, George was carefully examined by the Museum staff and, most importantly, by the man who was to be his companion for the next four years: George Dante, founder of Wildlife Preservations, a premier natural history exhibit service based in New Jersey. It was not lost on us that Mr. Dante shared his name with this unique and iconic tortoise, requiring that all of us change our language for the next several years to refer to George the Tortoise and George the Human.
The artistry that went into the creation of the newly preserved specimen cannot be understated. George Dante has a long list of distinguished clients, and it is no wonder. His craftsmanship, attention to detail, and respectful handling of this most important icon, a piece of Ecuador’s natural patrimony, was evident throughout the nearly four years he and Lonesome George shared space.
From George (the human’s) studio in New Jersey, Lonesome George traveled in September 2014 to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, where he was the featured installation of a powerful exhibit on extinction. The exhibit was widely viewed and enjoyed, sparking many memories for visitors who had seen Lonesome George alive in the Galapagos Islands over the last several decades. In early 2015, Lonesome George traveled back to New Jersey for additional touch-ups and archival mold making. These molds and positives are being kept in New Jersey in the event that there is any damage to Lonesome George either in travel or at his final resting place, the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center on Santa Cruz Island. With the molds, it would be possible to re-create an indistinguishable replica should it ever be requested by the Government of Ecuador, otherwise the molds will remain under lock and key.
I had an opportunity to visit both Georges in April 2015 at the Wildlife Preservations studio in Woodland Park, New Jersey, where Lonesome George was surrounded by other examples of George Dante’s art. While Galapagos is an extraordinary example of how seemingly unrelated species can live in proximity (think: flamingos and fur seals, penguins and marine iguanas), here was a Galapagos tortoise among polar bears, bison, and the occasional zebra. A first, I would imagine!
And now Lonesome George’s time in the US has drawn to a close. In a wonderful example of the lasting power of collaboration, the same group who worked to bring Lonesome George here (the Galapagos National Park Directorate, AMNH, Dr. James Gibbs, and Galapagos Conservancy) worked to bring him home. With luck and the expertise of our friends at Dietl and Global Transport, Lonesome George took his last ride out to JFK Airport, boarded a plane on February 16th, and received an enthusiastic welcome from Park personnel in Guayaquil. Today, he is travelling across the Pacific to Santa Cruz Island accompanied by both Dr. Gibbs and Ron Geigerich, taxidermist from SUNY-ESF, to be installed at the newly completed Symbol of Hope Exhibition Hall in Puerto Ayora. On February 23, he will be received by a host of dignitaries as the Hall is formally opened. And what better way to end a four year adventure: home safe and sound.
Photo credits, from top: Lonesome George in his corral in Galapagos in 2005 © Alizon Llerena; Lonesome George exhibit at AMNH © JargaPix Photography; Lonesome George at George Dante’s studio © Dave Rockwell.