By guest author and GC Adjunct Scientist Dr. James Gibbs of the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF).
Many thousands of Galapagos giant tortoises have left the Archipelago, mostly to be eaten shortly thereafter. Very few ever came back. Lonesome George is one of those few — and it’s been quite an odyssey.
I had the great fortune of accompanying Lonesome George on his trip out of Galapagos following his death in 2012 — frozen solid, wrapped in heavy rolls of pink panther insulation, and ensconced in a very robust box made by local carpenters. I recall the sweltering heat and brilliant light as we left Galapagos in the early morning, crossing the turquoise waters of the canal between Santa Cruz Island and Baltra. A few observant travelers asked about the odd, large box, and what was inside. When told, some touched their fingers to the box; some even teared up.
After airplanes, customs, and a long, sleepless overnight flight, we arrived, under the slate dawn sky of a cold early spring day in New York City, through blinking brake lights of taxis on the Brooklyn Bridge, to the imposing façade of the American Museum of Natural History. Thus began a long taxidermy process for this famous tortoise. Nobody really knew what we were getting into. A 6-month-long plan dragged into over three years of hard work by too many to count.
And then, three years later, we were back in Galapagos: Lonesome George no longer a frozen lump, but rather a fully articulated and elegant, indeed resplendent, world-class zoological specimen ensconced in a gorgeous glass vitrine. A huge investment was made in this long process based on the belief in the power of taxidermy to convert a dead tortoise into an enduring symbol for conservation.
No detail was skipped to get this “right.” Lonesome George’s keeper, Don Fausto, was consulted throughout the process on posture and even the position of the feet and neck. A sample of soil from Pinta Island was checked to ensure that the dusty appearance of the shell matched the earth color of his home island. Even Lonesome George’s missing front toenail is still missing — a small detail known mostly to Lonesome George aficionados — still preserved for those who care to look.
At the grand opening event, many gathered to celebrate his return: members from the Ecuadorian Navy, Air Force, and Police in their crisp uniforms, politicians, dignitaries, government officials, and key members of the local community in Galapagos. Local students from the dance academy swirled to rhythms of coastal Ecuador. When the dancers slowed and the music stopped, various functionaries took their turn at the podium — repeating the same theme: Lonesome George — a legend, a future, and a hope. You might ask: Why did so many work so hard to save this one specimen for all time?
Walter Bustos, Director of the Galapagos National Park, had some key insights. He noted that although Lonesome George had no descendants, in some ways all of the young tortoises reared at the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center and repatriated to the islands could be considered his descendants. The death of Lonesome George, which occurred in June 2012 on the eve of the international giant tortoise workshop, and the extinction of the Pinta Island tortoise catalyzed all of us to “think big” to expand the gains in tortoise conservation over the last 50 years toward eventually restoring their historical numbers. More pointedly, Director Bustos asked: Can the violence that has killed so many species be converted to peace, collaboration, and restoration? Will we make the world a hell for animals or let them survive and be a cherished part of our life? What will it take to remind us to do the right thing?
The Ecuadorian government made a major investment — a beautiful facility to showcase Lonesome George — to always remind us “to do the right thing.” There is state-of-the art climate control, clever interpretive displays, and a well-orchestrated process for moving visitors through the exhibit.
The very exhibit housing Lonesome George is a physical manifestation of this idea of “a legend, a future, and a hope.” When one views Lonesome George in his glass vitrine, one can also look past him, out into a tortoise breeding corral, and see endangered tortoises that form the nucleus for repopulating an island where tortoises went extinct some 150 years ago. At times these tortoises gather right outside the glass of Lonesome George’s vitrine, where they feed, drink water, and, on occasion, mate.
Lonesome George is now on exhibit for everyone forever to witness, remember, and wonder. Hundreds of people from town and from around the world have begun visiting and paying homage to this tortoise; thousands more will come. Lonesome George will continue to remind us of the constant need to work together to prevent future extinctions of all species.
As Wacho Tapia said in his remarks at the event: “Let Lonesome George be an inspiration to us all to do the right thing and live in harmony with the wild creatures with which we are privileged to live.”
After a small dinner together amongst those dedicated to bringing Lonesome George back home — we drove Don Fausto back up to his modest farm in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island — the death mask of Lonesome George, a gift from Lonesome George’s taxidermist George Dante to Don Fausto, nestled in his hands. With the vehicle full, I sat alone in the back of Wacho’s truck — cool air streaming by; I gazed at the vivid stars in the crystal clear sky, thinking back to that raw spring morning in New York City where this all began. I was overcome by the knowledge that, despite the headaches, complexities, and costs, it has been worth it. We had all worked together to accomplish something truly important that will continue to inspire conservation actions for years to come.
Dr. James Gibbs is Professor of Vertebrate Conservation Biology and Associate Chair of the Department of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York (SUNY-ESF). He has partnered with Galapagos Conservancy for many years in efforts to restore giant tortoise populations in Galapagos through the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative, and is a frequent guest contributor to the GC blog.
Photo credits: All photos © Maud Qunizin except top Lonesome George exhibit image © Lucas Garzón Figueroa, and author photo (bottom) © Wacho Tapia.
Read the previous post in this series, Lonesome George and a Unique Opportunity, by guest author Ronald Giegerich, Collection Manager at SUNY-ESF.
View the paperback, The Lonesome George Story: Where Do We Go from Here? by GC Science Advisor Dr. Linda Cayot.